How we sold the pink dolphins down the river

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 December, 2009, 12:00am

The hoarding next to the old Star Ferry terminal in Central, erected to keep reclamation from prying eyes, has been decorated with appealing drawings by primary schoolchildren expressing their dream of what they wish Hong Kong harbour to look like.

Interestingly, many of these works show dolphins frolicking in the water, reflecting the widespread affection for the marine mammals that inhabit our neighbourhood.

The dolphin was Hong Kong's official mascot of the 1997 handover ceremony. But now that work has officially started on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge - the world's longest sea bridge - the survival of these creatures is in doubt.

Dolphin-watching is a favourite pastime of tourists and locals alike. All too often, the dolphins encountered bear scars - testament to encounters with ships, very likely the high-speed hydrofoils that ply between Hong Kong and Macau.

The ceremony to launch construction of the 50-kilometre-long bridge, held in Zhuhai on December 15, was attended by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang and the chief executives of both Hong Kong and Macau. Li said of the bridge: 'It is of great significance to maintain the long-term prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macau, and enhance the overall competitiveness in the region.'

That is undoubtedly true. The bridge's economic value is not in doubt. It will further integrate Hong Kong into the economy of the Pearl River Delta and facilitate development of the western side of the delta.

What is in doubt, however, is the ecological price to be paid by innocent marine life. An Environmental Impact Assessment Report optimistically declared that the impact of this massive construction project on the Chinese pink dolphin in Hong Kong waters was 'insignificant'.

Zhu Yongling, a mainland official, was quoted as saying at the inauguration ceremony that the construction project would endeavour to protect the maritime environment and marine life, such as pink dolphins. 'We will control the construction noise and turbidity of the seawater, and prevent oil pollution,' he said.

The construction, which will take six years, involves reclamation to create two artificial islands - one near Chek Lap Kok - as well as the building of a six-kilometre undersea tunnel. Such large-scale work will involve much dredging, noise and water pollution, the loss of fish on which dolphins feed, not to mention physical danger to the dolphins themselves.

A report in the Macau Post Daily, citing 'informed sources', said the project 'is planned to include the setting-up of a protection area for pink dolphins'. However, no details were provided. Certainly, where Hong Kong is concerned, the creation of a marine park for dolphins has been vetoed - until after the damage has been done: officials here have decided that such a park will only be established once the bridge has been built.

According to Cheng Ting-ning, Hong Kong head of the project, the park could only be designated in 2015, after most of the marine construction activities had been completed: 'The park is designated for dolphins to live peacefully in the future... we have to gather more realistic data to convince the public there is need [for] a marine park.'

By that time, so few dolphins might be left that the government could conclude there was no need for a dolphin marine park. Incredibly, Cheng said dolphins disturbed by the construction would go away and return when the work had ended. It is as though he was going to put up a sign saying: 'Temporarily out of service' and the dolphins would find some other habitat for the next six years.

This is the same attitude as that of the anonymous Marine Department official who said, in June 2007, that there was no need to put measures in place to protect dolphins from high-speed ferries because they are smart and know how to get out of the way.

Tell that to the Yangtze River dolphins, which are now extinct.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.


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