Hong Kong marine research centre may build wall to keep out unruly visitors

Surge in numbers to ecologically sensitive Cape D’Aguilar has disrupted work of scientists, with people even collecting animals and fishing illegally

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 6:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 6:02am

A wall may have to be put around an ecologically sensitive research area in Hong Kong if visitors do not begin respecting it, the director of a marine biology research facility warns.

Professor Gray Williams of the Swire Institute of Marine Science research facility (SWIMS) says a surge of visitors in the past few years to Cape D’Aguilar at the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island has disrupted research and experiments and raised safety concerns.

“I’m afraid people tend to be rather inquisitive and start to move things around, tread on things, or change the water supply,” he said.

“We’ve had some of the small seedlings pulled out of their pods and they were not put back and so they died. We’ve had people standing on animals and they died.”

Researchers and students have seen visitors collecting animals or fishing in the area, which is illegal as the waters have been declared a marine reserve.

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The research centre and nearby residences are private property but visitors have attempted to get in to the buildings – some successfully – even though there are “private property” signs around the sites. In response, the centre put up barriers and installed locks, but people still attempt to bypass them.

When confronted, visitors were generally “very reasonable”, but some refuse to stop what they are doing and have had loud arguments with students, according to Williams.

The marine biologist said he did not want to impose the “ultimate” solution but may have to consider it if the situation did not improve.

“To put a wall up around the institute would be terrible ... this place is beautiful, it would spoil the aesthetics of the whole place,” he said. “But perhaps for some areas we may have to do that.”

The area surrounding SWIMS was designated a site of scientific interest by the government in 1991. The SWIMS facility was opened in November 1994 to conduct marine research in and around the marine reserve.

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Researchers saw a marked surge in sightseers to the area around 2013 after a number of articles about Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse in local newspapers. Stargazers who want to study a night sky unobscured by air and light pollution have added to the influx.

Then there are the websites that arrange trips by tour groups, with some even listing the private research facility as a landmark to visit, putting increased pressure on the site’s ability to handle visitors.

We can see that the environment has already been damaged by the number of people coming here
Professor Gray Williams

“Most of the hikers are fine, they come here to enjoy the scenery and experience a very beautiful part of Hong Kong, and they’re perfectly within their right to do that ... the only problem is that a few people are over-inquisitive or want to see things they’re not allowed access to,” Williams said.

Establishing a research centre in a different part of the city, where their experiments had less risk of being disturbed, would not be ideal, he said, because getting ancillary facilities for the centre would be difficult.

Williams hoped that making people aware of the situation could help to minimise the impact their presence had on the area.

“Trying to go through education, to explain to people that if you are to come down here then you need to be careful to make sure that [they] don’t disrupt the environment, because we can see that the environment has already been damaged by the number of people coming here,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department said its responsibility was to the marine reserve – the waters below the high tide mark – and not the coastal rocky area or other land areas in Cape D’Aguilar.

But she added that patrols had been “stepped up to monitor activities [in the reserve], remind visitors of the function of the marine reserve, to conserve the ecological environment”, and to take enforcement action against any illegal activities.