An official survey has confirmed the existence of a protected seahorse species in the Tai Po coast of Lung Mei, which is all but doomed to be turned into a man-made beach project.
The recognition, coming from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, has boosted the confidence of green groups in mounting a legal challenge to overthrow the HK$200 million project supported by the Tai Po District Council.
The department had studied four sites, including Lung Mei, to provide an ecological update for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, whom environmentalists have asked to revoke a work permit issued for the scheme.
Yesterday, the Save Lung Mei Alliance seized on the results as government indication that the muddy coast could be a habitat of the Hippocampus kuda.
Showing the survey to reporters, alliance spokesman Derek Li Kam-wa said the department, while noting the rare species, had intended to play down the value of Lung Mei by comparing it to three other sites in Tai Po and Sai Kung. "How can you compare four sites, all high in ecological value, and ask people to wipe out one? Even children know this is nonsense," Li said.
"But one thing it cannot deny is that Lung Mei is a breeding ground for the spotted seahorse. This is the first time the government has confirmed this."
In the eight-week study between December and January, inspectors sighted the spotted seahorse 27 times at all the four sites, which included nearby Ting Kok East, Yung Shue O North and Lai Chi Chong to the east. It recorded the fewest seahorses - only two - in Lung Mei.
Despite the comparison, the department said: "In view of the high site fidelity of seahorses … it is not unreasonable to expect pregnant or new-born spotted seahorses to be eventually found at all these sites, which … could be habitats for the spotted seahorse."
The idea of a 200-metre beach was first floated in the mid-1990s. The alliance says volunteers have seen more than 200 sea species, far more than the findings in a 2008 impact assessment commissioned by the Civil Engineering Development Department, which is in charge of the construction.
The latest study also found two other species, the cowfish and the dragonet, which had been sighted by the alliance as well but not by the engineering department.
Alliance member Paul Zimmerman said the survey "proves the  survey was faulty, and has strengthened our case".
He said the alliance was, while awaiting Leung's reply, preparing a judicial review application to challenge the director of the environment's refusal two weeks ago to cancel the work permit. If Leung does not revoke the permit, it will go to the courts.