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Whale’s death a wake-up call for Hong Kong to better protect its fragile marine environment (English only)

The excitement and outrage generated by the sighting of a Bryde’s whale and its untimely death have spurred badly needed discussion on how to make Hong Kong a safer and more attractive place for marine mammals and local biodiversity

(Original article published in the South China Morning Post on 5 August 2023)
Dr. Bosco Chan
Director, Conservation, WWF-Hong Kong
The arrival of a gentle giant in Sai Kung waters three weeks ago filled Hongkongers with excitement and interest. The whale, believed to be a Bryde’s whale, proceeded to feed and frolic in the Port Shelter area surrounded by party yachts, speedboats and thrill-seeking sightseers, occasionally performing its spectacular feeding strategies and filling the onlookers with awe.

But, on July 31, the story came to a tragic end with the discovery of the whale’s carcass. While the cause of death is still being investigated, a necropsy team found a fresh wound in front of the whale’s dorsal fin.

Conservation groups repeatedly expressed concern about the whale’s safety following the initial sighting. Haphazard “whale-watching tours” and the generally busy marine traffic nearby was a worry.

When public appeals to stop disturbing the whale failed, the government was asked to intervene. Representatives said they did their best within the existing legal framework but said many of the recommendations were not feasible.
After visiting the necropsy site, Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan pledged that the government would act “better, faster, and more effectively in the future” by reviewing existing legislation, strengthening public education and drafting contingency plans for future whale arrivals.

Records show that the sea surrounding Hong Kong has been home to several baleen whale species: a 2007 study suggested that the Bryde’s whale might not be all that rare in and around Hong Kong. A study on China’s whale distribution also indicates that the waters near Guangdong used to be a baleen whale hotspot.

These accounts suggest whales are likely to visit Hong Kong again, prompting an important question: how can Hong Kong provide a safer refuge for marine megafauna?

From the latest news reports, it appears that the government wants to strengthen public education and explore mechanisms to regulate whale-watching activities, which is a positive step. There are plenty of overseas examples and case studies available for reference.

A few prominent issues were revealed during the frenzied two weeks of whale-chasing in Port Shelter. We saw the often inappropriate attitudes and behaviour of many Hongkongers towards wildlife; the inadequacy of our laws and regulations when it comes to protecting wildlife; the high volume of marine traffic, even in rural waters; and the meagre amount of prey fish the whale managed to catch when it fed.

These issues raise a broader question. How can we make Hong Kong a safer and more attractive place for marine mammals and local biodiversity?

WWF-Hong Kong believes that a healthy marine ecosystem is the answer. Two key steps need to be taken urgently. First, establish more marine protected areas – these help replenish depleted marine organism populations and provide a legal vehicle to control uses that are incompatible with marine conservation.

The Hong Kong government needs to act swiftly to expand our existing protected areas, which currently cover a woeful 5 per cent of local waters. Port Shelter, where the whale spent its last days, is one of WWF-Hong Kong’s marine conservation priority hotspots. Would this story have had a different ending if it were a protected area?

Second, marine spatial planning is an increasingly popular tool used to sustainably manage ocean spaces. As one of the world’s busiest ports, balancing Hong Kong’s development demands with our environmental protection needs has always been a challenge.

However, the precipitous decline in our Chinese white dolphin population and the looming plan to construct the Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands should be sufficient drivers for the government to prioritise conducting a comprehensive citywide marine spatial planning study. 

This will provide a platform for key marine stakeholders to share ideas and make informed, coordinated plans that benefit society and the natural environment.

WWF-Hong Kong is launching a pilot ocean accounting study that will hopefully generate momentum for this long-overdue endeavour. We welcome all to join us in this formidable but vital task.

The Port Shelter whale has sparked renewed ocean and cetacean conservation awareness among Hongkongers. This tragic story should now ignite determination and action to protect our fragile marine ecosystem, so that one day we will be able to respectfully and safely welcome all whales.


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