The possible home of the endangered and highly priced Hong Kong grouper in Sai Kung should be turned into a marine park to better conserve the species of fish, green groups say.
The call came after the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department took the area in Port Shelter off the priority list for designation as a marine park, saying further discussions were needed with affected parties.
But Green Power and the Eco-Education and Resources Centre say the Port Shelter waters are ecologically important, as half the 270 coral fish species ever spotted in Hong Kong were found there. In particular, the site in question - 359 hectares off the University of Science and Technology campus on the Clear Water Bay peninsula - could be one of the last remaining habitats for the rare local grouper.
The department said there was no pressing need to designate the waters as marine park as they found no apparent threats to the marine ecosystem.
A spokeswoman said the department had no recent record of the rare grouper. "We are not aware of any record of spawning activities of the Hong Kong grouper in Port Shelter in recent years," she said.
The grouper is classified as a globally endangered species, a result of suspected overfishing.
"The fish used to be popular wedding banquet fare, given its auspicious name and red colours," Dr Michelle Cheung Ma-shan, science manager of the eco-education centre, said of the local variety. "It may be for that reason the species was heavily consumed and fished."
The expensive fish was almost absent from the market now, she said, adding that a palm-sized one could fetch up to HK$500.
Previous attempts to farm the fish have proved commercially unsuccessful. Despite the population decline, the species - which can also be found in waters off the southern Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Japan and Korea - is still occasionally spotted in Port Shelter, she said.
"In the surveys we did in the past 10 years, we saw them no more than 10 times. The very last time was in 2012," Cheung said.
These surveys also found eight other species new to the area including some that had apparently arrived on an ocean current from the Philippines.
Green Power research head Dr Cheng Luk-ki said the government should reconsider a proposal to designate the area as a marine park.
But even with Port Shelter designated, Cheng said, the city would still fall well short of targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has applied to Hong Kong since 2011. The treaty recommends signatories set aside 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas as protected areas. Only 1.5 per cent of the sea area is designated as marine parks or special protected areas.