Fears for rare dolphins as ferry numbers soar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 June, 2007, 12:00am

Alarm raised at lack of protection for sea mammals

The number of vessels, including high-speed ferries, passing through the Chinese white dolphin's habitat has almost doubled since 1999, yet the Marine Department does not have regulations to protect the endangered species.

Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, head of the Hong Kong Cetacean Research Project and chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, said the ferries were potentially deadly because they released high-frequency sounds that distorted the animal's communication system.

Research suggests the dolphins dive for longer when the ferries - jet foils or catamarans - pass through. The captains also make no attempt to avoid them, Mr Hung said.

The South China Morning Post spent 30 minutes watching a pod of up to 10 dolphins swim in the congested Urmston Road sea channel as several high-speed vessels raced past. As well as contending with the ferries, numerous barges and other ships crowd the channel.

Dolphins swim in the Urmston Road sea passage because the deep water provides a bountiful source of food for the creatures.

Mr Hung, who has been researching the dolphins for 10 years, believes the dramatic increase in ferries through the area is because of a rise in traffic between mainland cities and Hong Kong's airport.

Marine Department figures show the number of vessels passing through the channel jumped from 26,000 in 1999 to 50,000 in 2005.

There are between 200 and 230 dolphins in Hong Kong waters at any one time. Although they are called Chinese white dolphins, their colour changes from dark grey in juveniles to pink in adults.

A department spokeswoman confirmed it did not have any regulations for protecting marine life. 'The role and responsibility of the Marine Department is to regulate marine traffic and ensure navigation safety,' the spokeswoman said. 'However, we always advise all ships to navigate in a safe manner within or outside Hong Kong waters.'

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has a code of conduct concerning dolphins that is sent to tourist information centres and operators of dolphin-watching cruises, but not other commercial shipping operators.

Under Hong Kong law, those found guilty of disturbing protected wild animals, including dolphins, face a fine of HK$100,000 and up to one year in jail.

Mr Hung said that when he approached the Marine Department about the ferry problem, he was told there was no reason to be concerned because dolphins were smart and knew how to get out of the way.

'Dolphin numbers have remained stable for the past 10 years, but how much further can they be pushed, this is the point,' Mr Hung said. 'We only have to be out here [in the Urmston Road channel] for a short while recording the dolphins and it becomes stressful. Imagine what it is like for these animals.'

Mr Hung said another problem was proposed developments in the area, such as the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, which would cross into the species' habitat, and the airport's proposed third runway.

'No one is considering what the cumulative impact of all this will be.'

There is also growing problems with 'red tides' in Hong Kong, a powerful algal bloom that depletes oxygen in the water and kills fish.

Lawmaker Choy So-yuk said the lack of regulations to protect the dolphins showed there was not enough co-ordination to protect the environment and endangered species in Hong Kong.