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Tuesday, September 16, 2014, 13:27

Fight to save

By Sylvia Chang

Environmentalists vow to continue the fight to preserve the Chinese white dolphins after the Advisory Council on the Environment endorsed, with conditions, the Environmental Impact Report on construction of the third runway at Hong Kong International Airport. Sylvia Chang reports.

Fight to save

A Chinese white dolphin jumps up from the sea. (Crystal Wong / China Daily)

Fight to save

Construction of Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge is proceeding at southeastern Lantau Island

The chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society has expressed anger over last night’s announcement by the Advisory Council on the Environment (ACE), that it had endorsed, conditionally, the environmental impact assessments on construction of a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport.

The ACE conditions included setting up a 2,400-hectare marine preserve north of Lantau Island to protect the “near threatened” Chinese white dolphins (Sousa chinensis) — but not until construction of the third runway is completed in 2023. What will happen to the dolphins in meantime, demanded Samuel Hung Ka-yiu. He called the marine park proposal “preservation after development”.

The ACE also demanded establishment of a marine ecology fund to protect the white dolphins. “The fund is set up for research, but it cannot solve the problem of the reduction in dolphins. It’s like when your home is on fire, somebody gives you money for research on why it’s on fire. But it’s not a measure at all,” Hung said.

Preservation of the dolphins has become a personal crusade, for Hung, the 39-year-old PhD who has been  visiting their habitat twice or three times every week over the years. He fears that the species, first spotted in these waters nearly 400 years ago, may soon disappear completely.

The dolphin conservation society has recorded a 60 percent decline in the number of dolphins cited in local waters over the last decade, from 158 in 2003 to 61 in 2012, and 62 in 2013. A fresh alarm was sounded last year, when growing numbers of baby dolphins, the most vulnerable members of the species, were sighted floating dead in local waters.

At 9:30 on a typical morning in late August, China Daily accompanied Hung as he stepped aboard a boat near the Tung Chung MTR Station on Lantau Island. 

The vessel carrying Hung sails through the Tuen Mun - Tai O link, between south Chek Lap Kok Island and north Lantau Island. Hong Kong - Macao ferries sail in and out of view. This passage will serve as the navigation channel on the Hong Kong side of the Hong Kong - Zhuhai - Macao bridge (HZMB), when the new span opens in 2016.

Hung peers through his binoculars, looking for signs of remaining dolphins. “Only a few dolphins are left in this area. The others were driven away by marine traffic and noises coming from the nearby construction.”

Soon, dolphins appear, one or two at a time, leaping out of the water. Each is greeted by a jubilant shout from Hung who’s given the dolphins names and he knows them all. Hung has been 17 years at sea. He calls out to young surveyors, to record the speed of the boat, weather conditions, distance from the dock and other details at the time of each sighting.

The fight to preserve the dolphins grew more intense, after June 2011. That was when the Airport Authority proposed construction of a third runway. The HK$130 billion third runway is urgently needed, the authority argued, if Hong Kong is to maintain its status as a leading aviation hub.

Construction, to take place between 2016 and 2023, would entail reclamation of 650 hectares of land from the sea. Those waters are the heart of the white dolphin habitat in this region.

The construction plan would generate a sharp rise in marine traffic, and add to water and noise pollution — all three are significant threats to the white dolphins.

“I won’t allow more hurt to the dolphins,” says Hung.

More marine parks proposed

Local authorities have taken steps to protect the white dolphins. Those include non-dredging methods for reclamation of land and seawall construction to reduce the amount of dredging and marine disturbance. Noisy equipment will be mounted aboard construction vessels to minimize underwater noise.

The Airport Authority promised to re-route the Skypier high-speed ferry services between Macao and Zhuhai and reduce the speed of ferries travelling to Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau marine park, a vital dolphin sanctuary. 

The Airport Authority has insisted that dolphins will return to the area after construction of the third runway is complete, citing the rebound of the dolphin population off northwest Chek Lap Kok  after Hong Kong International Airport was completed in the 1990s.

Hung calls the latest proposals nothing but “weasel words” meant to avoid the real issue. Hung says he is prepared for long-term fights. “The public needs to realize the huge costs of economic development—animal losses and environmental pollution. That’s what we are going to pay for in the future.”

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