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Promoting dolphin conservation through eco-tourism

As part of ongoing efforts to protect the near-threatened Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis), WWF-Hong Kong has been working with tour operators in the small fishing village of Tai O on an eco-tourism project, designed to increase public understanding of ecological issues and threats faced by the dolphins.

As part of ongoing efforts to protect the near-threatened Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis), WWF-Hong Kong has been working with tour operators in the small fishing village of Tai O on an eco-tourism project, designed to increase public understanding of ecological issues and threats faced by the dolphins. This project involved the creation of tailor-made sightseeing tours and dolphin-friendly guidelines for the walla walla motorboat operators.
Starting in 2014, WWF engaged tour operators, who have been running in Lantau waters for decades, with the two-pronged approach of setting up knowledge-based tours, and promoting a Code of Conduct to increase the general safety of dolphin watching activities for both humans and animals. The Tai O Dolphin Watching Interpreter Programme was launched during the July-October 2015 peak season with four out of the five walla walla operators taking part. WWF trained university students to act as tour guides for the operators, who held over 850 free guided boat tours of 20 minutes each for more than 12,000 visitors during the first phase of the programme.
In response to the success of the programme, in 2016 WWF invited HKTraveler, a local eco-tourism company, to further promote the dolphin tours, with WWF acting in an advisory role. The entrance of HKTraveler allowed for paid tours that gave visitors a chance learn in-depth about the culture of Tai O and the challenges faced by the dwindling numbers of dolphins in the region. With all five operators taking part that year in the second phase of the programme, there were over 20 guided tours of three hours each benefitting more than 200 visitors, and over 300 tours of 20 minutes each benefitting more than 4,000 visitors.
While increasing the responsibility and quality of the dolphin watching tours, WWF also worked to implement a Code of Conduct. The walla walla tours have the potential to disturb or harm dolphins if they are not regulated, most noticeably the increased risk of collision and injury. Despite the introduction of dolphin watching guidelines for vessel by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in 2000, there is a lack of compliance and monitoring.
The walla walla operators lack of compliance to AFCD’s code is in part due to the difficulty of following the guidelines, such as the requirement that only one dolphin watching vessel is allowed within a 500-metre radius, or the requirement that vessel slow down to no-wake speed or stop if a dolphin is within 100 metres. Such conditions make it difficult for operators to provide tours that satisfy customers as it is difficult to observe the dolphins at this distance. Additionally, these guidelines are specifically designed for vessels such as yachts and cruisers that are larger and faster compared with the walla walla, making them unsuitable for Tai O tours.
The operators, however, were willing to voluntarily take up a code suggested by WWF. To minimise threats to dolphins, while maximising business opportunities for the operators, WWF suggested a Code of Conduct for walla walla operators based on scientific research and in-line with international best practices to aid marine conservation. In modifying the code for the needs of walla walla operators, WWF held discussions with the AFCD, the Marine Mammal Conservation Working Group (MMCWG) and independent dolphin experts.
Since the launch of WWF’s modified Code of Conduct in 2015, WWF staff have been conducting land-based surveys several times a month to check compliance rates, providing insight into its strengths and weaknesses. Of note, the operators managed to keep the dolphin watching period to a maximum of 10 minutes, ensure that no more than three walla walla are within 100 metres of the dolphins, and reduce speed within a 50-metre radius. Over the two-year monitoring period, the greatest improvements in overall compliance were seen in two areas: first, not approaching the dolphins at high-speed and second, not approaching the dolphins head on, cutting across their course, or cornering them.
However, the general trend showed higher compliance in the peak season summer months and lower compliance in the off-peak winter months. For example, in the peak season months of July-September 2016, the average compliance rate was 74.7 per cent and in the off-peak season months of January-March 2017, average compliance rate was 37.7 per cent. This is in part due to operators moving their boats closer to the dolphins for a better view during winter when there are fewer of them due to seasonal migration. WWF is closely monitoring the compliance during on- and off-peak season and working with the operators to reduce code violations.
WWF investigated other areas in which it could improve dolphin safety, such as installing propeller guards on the walla walla to prevent injury in the event of a collision. Three types of propeller guards in a variety of designs and materials were tested on two walla walla. Data gathered of the designs showed an overall reduction in propeller force of 10-20 per cent, however, they created vessel vibrations that were deemed unsafe for passengers and ultimately rejected. WWF will continue investigating new ways of minimising disturbance to the dolphins from sightseeing tours.
WWF is also studying the diel pattern of the dolphins in South Lantau, focusing on underwater noise and collision risk and formulating mitigation measures. There is an urgent need to address the intense marine traffic caused by the caused by the fishing vessels, high-speed vessels and cargo vessels in the area, which has increased significantly over the past decade; and formulate an effective Species Action Plan under the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP).
WWF is currently asking the government to establish the West Lantau Marine Park, where Tai O and Yi O are located, to safeguard dolphin habitats, preserve traveling corridors and minimise impacts from development projects. This is crucial for creating a haven for this iconic species in Hong Kong. 

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