Sites for homes threaten sea life, biologist warns
More than a third of the sites proposed for reclamation to help solve Hong Kong's housing problems are home to valuable marine creatures or suspected to be ecologically sensitive, according to records kept by an experienced coral surveyor.
A marine biologist, Wong Chi-chun, has released underwater pictures from some of the 25 sites that have been earmarked for possible reclamation as the city seeks to build up its housing land bank.
A public consultation will help cut the number of sites down to 10. Wong (pictured), who has conducted coral surveys for public projects, warned that efforts to protect marine life locally by improving water quality and the recent ban on trawler fishing would go to waste if large-scale reclamation went ahead.
'I hope the release of these pictures will encourage the public to rethink whether it is necessary to threaten marine life with massive reclamation works,' Wong said. Wong, who braved rapid currents and busy channels to record the photographs, said at least nine of the 25 sites had sensitive marine life.
He found a red lionfish, a rare sight in Hong Kong waters, off Shek O quarry in 2003 and recorded a 100-year-old table coral with a diameter of more then two metres in waters between Po Toi Island and Beaufort Island in 2001.
Table coral is extremely rare and Wong said this specimen had remained undisturbed because of rapid currents and its 69-metre depth. Its flat shape, which gave the coral its name, made it particularly vulnerable to sedimentation, he said.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department confirmed that the two species could be found in Hong Kong only off the southeastern islands and in eastern waters.
A survey monitoring the effects of reclamation for the building of the Disneyland theme park found another soft coral, sea pen, at Kau Yi Chau, an island close to Peng Chau. Divers rarely encounter the coral as it is usually under the sandy seabed, unless seeking food.
Finless porpoises and another type of soft coral, sea whip, were found at sites that are more easily accessible to the public, including Cheung Chau and Tseung Kwan O.
The cumulative impact of reclamation is a particular concern at Cheung Chau, because of the government's plan to reclaim 16 hectares of sea near Shek Kwu Chau for the construction of an incinerator to burn waste.
Sites at Shuen Wan and Wu Kai Sha could also be home to valuable marine life, as they are adjacent to Lung Mei in Tai Po, where more than 200 marine creatures have been identified.
Wong said: 'Not all species found are highly sensitive, but few people know there are corals at urbanised sites like Tseung Kwan O. I think the public has the right to know.'
Wong called for thorough research on soft corals and sea anemone to be carried out before any decision on reclamation was made.
Professor Ang Put-o of the School of Life Sciences at Chinese University said reclamation had an irreversible impact on coral reefs, which required sunlight to survive.
Some of the reefs in the area were damaged when the government reclaimed land for the Chek Lap Kok airport, he said.
'It will be hard [for the coral] to recover when their habitat becomes turbid and covered with silt,' Ang said.
The reclamation plan has come under fire from environmentalists and former members of the town planning board, who said that other options, such as building on undeveloped land in the New Territories, should be considered first. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department spokeswoman said it would assess the potential impact of any reclamation and recommend mitigation measures.
It confirmed that Cheung Chau was close to the key habitat of Hong Kong's finless porpoises, but said that there had been a low density of sightings of the porpoises there.
The Development Bureau said marine life would be considered when allocating sites for reclamation. The bureau will shortlist 10 potential sites for a detailed feasibility study and launch further public consultation in the third quarter of this year.
The number of hectares of additional housing land from reclamation the Hong Kong government says the city will need by 2039