From large marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises to an array of fish, crustaceans and coral species, the array of marine life in Hong Kong’s waters is as captivating as it is diverse. But for many of the roughly 6,000 species that make up the area’s marine ecosystem, life gets harder year after year. Affected by overfishing, heavy boat traffic, various forms of pollution and habitat loss due to coastal development, a growing number of creatures that once had healthy populations are now classified as vulnerable or endangered, while others can no longer be found in the HKSAR at all.
Diversity at risk
One of those types is the Bahaba taipingensis, also known as the giant yellow croaker or yellow lip croaker. The bahaba, endemic to China, was once commonly found in the mouth of the Pearl River, with spawning grounds in Hong Kong, but is now critically endangered. Patrick Chan, former chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Seafood Merchants, says overfishing and destruction of hatcheries are key factors in the decline of the bahaba and other fish species.
“The bahaba is valuable because its swim bladder is a traditional Chinese medicine,” says Chan, explaining that a dried katty [600g] of bahaba swim bladder can be up to HK$1 million. “With such a high return, all fishermen want to catch this fish.”
The bahaba is just one of many once important commercial species that are now under threat. Populations of groupers and Hong Kong groupers, Chinese horseshoe crabs, tusks, Napoleon wrasses, seahorses, and several species of sharks, among many others, have all declined, with some species completely disappearing from local waters. These species are threatened by overfishing and a general lack of management of Hong Kong’s marine environment.
According to WWF figures, Hong Kong has the second highest per capita consumption of seafood in Asia and is the eighth largest consumer of seafood in the world. This has been another major factor in the area’s declining fish numbers and the city’s impact on fisheries elsewhere. National Geographic Explorer and Marine Program Director at Oceanic Conservation NGO Bloom Association Hong Kong, Stan Shea illustrates the magnitude of the problem: “Evidence shows that decades ago Hong Kong had such high yields of seafood that it supported 90% of local demand. Today, at least 90% of the seafood we eat has to be imported because our waters are so overfished that they can no longer support local appetites.”
But not only commercially fished species are threatened. The only marine mammals found in Hong Kong waters, Chinese white dolphins and porpoises, are currently classified as vulnerable globally, and both have seen their numbers decrease locally in recent years. Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, says the white dolphin population fell by more than 75% between 2003-2018 (from 188 to 32), albeit with a slight rebound to 52 in 2019 – numbers this low that they seriously endanger the viability of the population. Porpoises are also declining, and marine conservation organization OceansAsia reports that in 2019 a record 43 dead porpoises, out of an estimated population of about 200, washed up on Hong Kong’s beaches.
Chang cites pollution, collisions from boat traffic, entanglement of fishing nets and coastal development as some of the biggest threats to these species. Without significant action, Chang says both species could disappear from the HKSAR in the near future, and that, being at the top of the food chain, “their decline reflects a systemic failure in the marine ecosystem.”
Action for Oceans
While much damage has already been done to Hong Kong’s marine ecosystem, experts emphasize that much of it is not irreversible and that more conservation and management efforts could still make a huge difference.
Chang says the government’s 2012 ban on trawlers, expanding marine protected areas and providing training programs for the fishing industry, among other measures, are all steps in the right direction, but he estimates that a complete ban is needed. . on all commercial fishing in Hong Kong waters for two to three years to allow fish populations to meaningfully recover – a measure that seems unlikely at this point.
Another option is to encourage consumers and businesses to make more sustainable choices in their seafood consumption, retail and trade – something WWF Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Coalition (HKSSC) are trying to achieve through their work and the latest campaigns. dr. Laurence McCook, head of Oceans Conservation at WWF Hong Kong, says the goal is not only to make sustainable choices more readily available, but also to help people identify those choices more easily. Ultimately, however, he says that this strategy can only be successful if enough people participate to make it scalable and therefore economically attractive – and that companies must help by making sustainable options more available to the public.
“We need to create enough demand that is driven by a commitment to sustainability that is profitable for companies to market in a credible, responsible manner,” said Dr. McCook. “But ideally we create a situation where that is also cheaper, because the assumption that environmental sustainability and environmental responsibility are more expensive is only true because we don’t consider the real costs [of unsustainable consumption].”
In addition to more sustainable fishing practices, retail and consumption, the experts all point to the acute need to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. The widespread reliance on polystyrene foam boxes in the seafood industry is a particularly serious problem, but the use of plastic is something that also needs to be urgently addressed at both consumer and business levels. dr. McCook highlights the impact that small changes from big companies can have and explains that, through WWF’s Plastic ACtion (PACT) initiative, two of the largest online food delivery companies in Hong Kong have significantly reduced plastic use by simply offering customers a check the box to request disposable items. cutlery instead of automatically including it. In this one move, Dr. McCook says, “they made a far greater impact than I’ve had in four decades of doing my best.” [to minimize plastic use].”
dr. McCook believes that only by making sustainability good for business and the economy can we really hope to bring about lasting change – and that Hong Kong can learn a lot from China’s national initiatives in this area. “The Chinese government at the national level is really committed to eco-civilization,” he says. “This also includes an awareness of the economic value of healthy, natural ecosystems for people.” If the level of dedication can be lived up to – and replicated in Hong Kong – the impact would be significant.
Ultimately, as Shea concludes, when it comes to conservation: “There is no panacea. Everyone has a role to play: we need NGOs to spread the word, support from the general public, companies to promote conservation and conservation ideologies.” include sustainability in their practices, and the government to take initiative. We must work every day to put marine conservation at the top of our agenda.”
Find out how to preserve Hong Kong’s marine biodiversity at Oceans Tomorrow.