Andy Cornish's Blog

Dr Andy Cornish was raised in Hong Kong, and gained a strong interest in wildlife through spending time in Pokfulam Country Park. He studied Zoology at Nottingham University in England, travelled extensively through Central America where he learnt to scuba dive, and later did his PhD on reef fishes at the University of Hong Kong. Since then, he worked for a year doing coral reef management for the government of American Samoa, and taught in the Dept. of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of Hong Kong. He worked at WWF from 2005 to late 2012 as Conservation Director, and was responsible for four programmes: Climate, Footprint, Local Biodiversity and Regional Wetlands (including management of the Mai Po Nature Reserve). He remains involved in environmental issues on an independent basis.

Dolphins in Dire Straits

Urgent Measures Needed, Starting With a Moratorium on Reclamation
May 12, 2013

It’s been a bad few weeks for the Chinese white dolphins, and the future is looking dire for the population inhabiting the Pearl River Estuary and our western waters unless the Government finally steps up and takes the measures it should have years ago. Two weeks ago a dolphin watching group was horrified to see a mother and other dolphins trying to support a dead calf near the Sha Chau – Lung Kwu Chau Marine Park and shared the video, and last Sunday Dr Samuel Hung revealed that the latest information from the government monitoring programme that he undertakes is that numbers occurring in local waters have dropped significantly again again. The exact data will be shared next month but numbers had already dropped from 158 in 2003 to 78 in 2011.
 
Disturbance and permanent loss of habitat from reclamation, disturbance from high speed ferries (which make more than 100,000 trips through their habitat annually!), pollution, and a decline in stocks of the fish they feed on are all likely to have contributed to the dolphin decline. But reclamation poses the most obvious clear and present danger. Any visitor to our airport cannot have failed to notice the reclamation that is in full swing for the Zhuhai-Macao-Hong Kong Bridge and supporting infrastructure, and which could well be the cause of the recent declines. The sea to the east of the airport island is littered with barges with heavy equipment, and supporting vessels.
 
The situation could get a lot worse though with the Hong Kong Government and Airport Authority pushing for a third runway (650 hectares), and CEDD pushing for another three reclamations north of Lantau (Lung Kwu Tan 200-300 hectares, Siu Ho Wan 100-150 ha and Sunny Bay 60-100 ha), all in areas inhabited by dolphins. 1,795 hectares have already been lost to reclamation around Lantau over the years.
 
So how did we get into this mess? The Chinese white dolphins are the most well-known and loved marine animals in Hong Kong, the AFCD has a conservation plan for them, and they are given special attention as “sensitive receivers” in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)? How could this happen?
 
The simple truth is twofold, complacency and the power imbalance between those parts of government responsible for nature conservation, and those responsible for development. Complacency as in the first decade of monitoring, the numbers of dolphins seemed to be stable despite increasing threats, so conservation authorities stood by and allowed more, focused more on monitoring the dolphins than trying to proactively reduce the many threats to them. New marine parks were planned for the dolphins to protect critical habitat in 2002 in SW Lantau around Tai O and the Soko Islands but mysteriously were never designated.
 
Let’s also be clear that it is no surprise that the dolphins are in decline. It’s a matter of public record that for many years WWF (and others) warned that conservation measures to conserve the dolphins were lagging behind development threats, and that a decline was bound to occur. Here are a few links from 2009 and 2011. Furthermore, nothing short of a management plan designed to pro-actively reduce the threats and allow the population to recover was needed. These warnings fell on deaf ears in government, who have yet to propose any counter-measures.
 
Unbelievably the complacency continues. Yesterday I attended a public consultation on CEDD’s plans for six new reclamations and while they will conduct a cumulative EIA to look at the impact of all the ongoing or planned developments in western waters, seem remarkably confident the normal mitigation measures for dolphins will suffice. They won’t! At least the experts hired by the Airport Authority to conduct the EIA for the potential third runway were more realistic in acknowledging it will be very challenging to reduce the impacts of such a massive reclamation to a not-significant level. A briefing they held a few weeks ago to share their preliminary findings of the EIA showed dolphins certainly use the waters that would be reclaimed if the third runway goes ahead.
 
So what to be done, especially as the admittedly limited data from the mainland side of the Pearl River Estuary suggests where most of the population lives may be in decline too? Crucially I don’t believe it’s too late to restore the population – yet – but we have to act fast and decisively. Dolphins reproduce slowly, even when calves aren’t dying of unnatural causes, so every year that goes by matters a lot.
 
• Firstly, we need to acknowledge that all the efforts so far to conserve dolphins have not been enough, the system has failed. Government is still in denial so the Advisory Committee on the Environment (ACE) our ultimate environmental watchdog needs to conduct an independent review on what has gone wrong, and take steps to redress the balance.
 
• Highways Department is responsible for the Hong Kong–Macao-Zhuhai Bridge. They need to answer whether dolphin numbers are going down because of the Bridge construction, and under what circumstances would construction be stopped? This should all be part of the environmental permit under which they are allowed to operate.
 
• The Environment Bureau needs to put together a cross-border management plan for the whole Pearl River population with their Guangdong counterparts, with the help of cetacean scientists.
 
• There should be a moratorium on any new reclamations in western waters inhabited by the Chinese white dolphins until the above has occurred.
 
Anything less than this carries a heavy risk that the decline in the dolphins will get even worse, and even be irreversible, with tragic consequences.
Andy

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