Hong Kong’s conservationists want government to expand restrictions around Sham Wan in hope endangered green turtles will return home to nest

Proposals from environmental group include closing the beach for seven months of the year and keeping boats away from the area

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 8:16am

When Hong Kong officials decided to close off Sham Wan beach for five months every year, the hope was the endangered green turtle would return to nest in peace.

A decade has passed since the moratorium was imposed to combat the effect humans had on the turtles’ natural environment, but the situation remains dire.

Since 2008, just one turtle has been observed nesting there, in 2012, and no sightings of nesting green turtles have been recorded since, apart from one on Lantau Island two years ago.

However, conservationists insist that not all is lost. In April last year a healthy female green turtle was caught on camera swimming around Sham Wan.

Buoyed by this rare sighting, conservationists are hoping to persuade the government and public not to give up on these efforts ahead of a Legislative Council environmental affairs panel meeting on Monday discussing inroads in protecting local endangered species, including the green turtle.

“We want people and the government to know that there is still hope,” Dr Michelle Cheung Ma-shan, science manager at the Eco-Education and Resources Centre, said. “Sham Wan still maintains an [ecological] function.”

Tucked away in a namesake bay nestled on Lamma Island’s south side, the green turtle – or Chelonia mydas – is the only turtle species known to lay eggs on the 0.5 hectare (1.24 acre) beach, or anywhere in the territory. The coastal area was designated a “site of special scientific interest” in 1999.

Turtles are a migratory species, with adults known to travel hundreds to thousands of kilometres between nesting beaches and foraging grounds. A natural homing instinct makes the turtles return to their birthplace to breed.

Female turtles usually lay hundreds of eggs at least twice a year, but only about one out of 1,000 survives to adulthood.

According to the government’s Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, launched in 2016 to enhance biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, officials will “review and strengthen” existing conservation action plans for priority species such as the green turtle. The plan is still being updated.

Green groups have been pressing officials to step up protection efforts for the animal by expanding the restricted zone to the whole of Sham Wan bay, keeping out pleasure boats, junks and water sports activities that could disrupt the turtle’s breeding and nesting habits.

They have also proposed extending the restricted period by another two months so it starts in April, as green turtles begin mating in nearby waters in March. At present, the restricted period begins in June and ends in October. Unauthorised entry can lead to a HK$50,000 fine.

The highest record of nesting green turtles in Sham Wan was the five registered in 1998, the year the protective measures were drawn up. There have only been a couple of reported sightings a year from then up to the last sighting in 2012.

By May of this year, seven green turtles were reported to have been found dead; in contrast, seven were found dead in the whole of 2017, which was down from the eight found in 2016.

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A spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said wardens were posted in Sham Wan during the June to October spawning period, and had the power to take action against trespassers. Patrols were made on 86 days last year, up from 69 in 2016, and 73 the year before.

However, since the rules came into force in 1999, not a single prosecution had been made, but nor has the department received reports of turtles being harassed, a spokeswoman said.

The department would not say whether it was willing to enlarge the protected area to the entire bay, but stressed there were speed controls for vessels in the area that effectively stopped high-speed activities such as water skiing taking place.