WWF: The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge is a dangerous experiment on Chinese white dolphins - precautionary measures are urgently needed

Posted 20 May 2009

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge (the Bridge) project poses serious risks to the survival of the Chinese white dolphin beyond what can be predicted with any degree of confidence, said WWF today. In view of this, WWF calls on government to take precautionary measures, including immediately designating marine parks at Western Lantau and the Soko Islands, and establishing further marine protected areas as dolphin sanctuaries, to provide breathing space for the population of these animals in the Pearl River Estuary (PRE) in amongst Hong Kong's heavily congested western waters.

The Highways Department will soon complete the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the Bridge and its associated boundary crossing facilities. The EIA report will then be submitted to the Environment Protection Department for approval. In view of the expected but ultimately unknown impacts on the Chinese white dolphin, WWF is calling for increased conservation measures, to be adopted now, as a precautionary approach to offset any negative impacts of the Bridge in the future.

"Even though there have already been major reclamations in the Hong Kong waters before, none of them have cut right through the middle of the dolphin grounds. You just can't predict the impact on the dolphins of such a massive development in their midst, so the project represents a dangerous experiment to the dolphin's very survival in our waters," said Dr Alan Leung, WWF Hong Kong's Senior Conservation Officer.

Not only will the project encroach on the habitat of the dolphins, it will also cause massive and multiple disturbances during and after the construction period.

According to WWF's recent report, "A Decade of Management Plans, Conservation Initiatives and Protective Legislation for Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis)," which was compiled after a workshop held last year in Hong Kong with an international panel of experts, the dolphins in the PRE face the most man-made threats of any dolphin population on earth. They are also the largest population remaining in China. In light of the proposed Bridge and other upcoming projects, the survival of the dolphins will be threatened further.

WWF demands that the government immediately designate the two marine parks endorsed by the Country and Marine Park Board in 2002 at Western Lantau and Soko before the Bridge project starts. The government should also designate new areas for marine protected areas at the hotspots of dolphin occurrence. New areas confirmed by experts as particularly important to dolphins include the waters around the Brothers Islands and Tai O.

"Highways Department was supportive of the designation of more marine parks during a recent meeting, and will recommend to higher authorities that they are implemented as a critical measure to protect the pink mammal" said Dr Guillermo Moreno, WWF Hong Kong's Head of Marine Programme. "More protection for the dolphins is long overdue," he added. Designating more protected areas for the dolphins was also considered by the international experts as one of the most important conservation management measures needed.

WWF has also identified the current failure of the EIA process to effectively address the cumulative impacts of multiple development projects on Chinese white dolphin as a major issue. The government should review the current mechanism in the EIA process to ensure that the assessment of cumulative impacts are fully evaluated and addressed by each project proponent for the future infrastructure projects that may encroach on dolphin habitats.

"Only assessing the impact of individual projects is insufficient and irresponsible, as this fails to show how much the Chinese white dolphin has already suffered from the man-made disturbance created by all these infrastructure projects combined. Furthermore, loss of habitat cannot be remedied. Once feeding grounds or other important areas are gone this is forever," added Dr Moreno.

Over the past 12 years, over 1,700 ha of sea have been reclaimed within the relatively small area inhabited by the Chinese white dolphin in Hong Kong's western waters. Apart from the developments related to the Bridge, a number of major developments including the Airport third runway and reclamations along the north Lantau coast are proposed by government. Reclamation has not just caused a direct loss of the Chinese white dolphin's habitat, it also removed habitat for the fish on which they feed.

In addition, the government should carry out a comprehensive study to evaluate the cumulative impact on Chinese white dolphins in the entire PRE together with the Guangdong Government. Without such a benchmark study, it is difficult to assess how much more protected area or other measures are needed to ensure the survival of this iconic species.