HATS and Mullets – Victoria Harbor

This week I spotted the largest school of fish I have ever seen in Hong Kong. The grey mullets (Mugil cephalus) were attracted to a submarine seawater cooling outflow pipe that was discharging a grey liquid into the sea in western Kowloon. Each of the fish in the video below is 30-50 cm in length and I estimate there were at least 1000 of them.

I often see large mullets in that area. They regularly leap several feet into the air which is quite a spectacular sight. I have also seen an old angler at the Central ferry piers catching a 40cm mullet to the raucous applause of about 30 onlookers. The thing is the fish wasn’t hooked through the mouth but through the fin (quite a skill!) because it was swimming at the surface gasping and dying…
The behaviour of leaping out of the water according to some sources is a method mullets use to get more oxygen by storing air in their bodies so they can dive down into anoxic or low-oxygen water layers to catch prey others can’t. Grey mullets are known to be hypoxia-tolerant meaning they can tolerate low-oxygen environments better than other fish.

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And here is another video of a large mullet just meters from Discovery Bay beach. The way it is gasping at the surface while swimming in its side is just how the fish was behaving which I saw caught at Central ferry pier.

So what does it mean if there is a large aggregation of fish which are known to be tolerant of low-oxygen environments and which are exhibiting low-oxygen behaviour? It’s a pretty good sign of a lack of oxygen – duh! What causes low oxygen in the sea? Nearly always eutrophication – the process whereby excess nutrients from normally man-made sources cause microscopic algae known as phytoplankton to grow into large blooms (and sometimes red tides). When these inevitably die off the mass of dead material on the seabed decomposes using up oxygen until there is so little that the seabed and lower depths become so-called dead zones (anoxic zone) where very few hardy species can survive.
So I suspected illegal waste-water discharge and made a report to the EPD (Environmental Protection Department) online including the above video (you can also report pollution via the government telephone hotline 1823).
Say what you want about the HK government, the civil service works! They followed up with a site visit to test the water and issued an order to the building management to repair their outflow pipe. Apparently the pipe was seawater cooling air conditioning outflow, but was discharging wastewater as well. Two days later after the problem was fixed and the fish were gone!

(Note: grey mullet is a very popular food fish in southern China and you will see it even in most supermarkets. But the vast majority is farmed – in case you were worried about your fish being from sewage outfalls!)

So what have HATS got to do with it?
HATS stands for the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, a large sewage and wastewater treatment scheme designed to clean up HK’s notoriously filthy harbour. Setup in 2 phases, the first phase was successful enough to reduce the concentration of sewage to levels acceptable enough to allow the return of the New Year’s Cross Harbour Swim event. The annual event sees swimmers cross 1.89km from Lei Yu Mun’s Sam Ka Tsuen pier to Quarry Bay Park pier. First held in 1911 the event was stopped in 1978 because of health concerns.
However, in 2011 the EPD announced that water quality in the harbor, particularly in the eastern section where the race took place, had “shown significant improvement” and E. coli levels had decreased by 95 percent since 2001. Yet, the data from the EPD Shortly before the restarted race revealed that E. coli levels in the harbor were still twice the maximum acceptable level at Hong Kong bathing beaches. But it was still a big improvement.

The 2011 Cross-Harbour Swimming Race

The sewage levels are evaluated by measuring the concentration of the common gut bacteria Escheria coli(E. coli) in the samples as a proxy for all the other gut inhabiting and potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses in sewage.

However,the planned second phase of Hong Kong’s Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS) has recently been put on indefinite hold. The upgrade would have boosted the capacity of the treatment works to remove nutrients such as phosphates from effluent. This would have reduce eutrophication and helped rehabilitate the dead zones. Excess phosphates are also linked to increases of toxic algal blooms.

Officials said the current chemical-based treatment system was enough to meet most water quality objectives and stressed the upgrade to biological treatment was not “critical” at this stage. The planned upgrade would deliver “only marginal improvements” to water quality in western Victoria Harbour and bring little benefit to near-shore pollution. Their priority was to cut off improperly connected pipes and crack down on unlawful discharges into the harbour off Central and Wan Chai.
When I first read that I was highly sceptical and thought the government was just trying to save money. But having seen illegal discharge from a major shopping mall and office complex directly into the Harbour I now think they actually have a very good point!

The HATS scheme overview

Denying the scheme was declared dead, assistant director of environmental protection Amy Yuen Wai-yin said that in terms of E coli levels close to the harbour’s shores, the upgrade was “not an answer”, citing water quality modelling results. The cost of the upgrade, according to the latest estimate based on 2012 prices, has almost tripled from the 2004 estimate of HK$11 billion to up to HK$30 billion. Perhaps then they are right to concentrate on cleaning up the illegal and accidental discharges of wastewater before tackling the finer points of more advanced clean up.

Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, another council member, said officials should clarify to what extent illegal discharges and improperly connected pipes contributed to water pollution. He also questioned whether the upgrade would have the intended effect, as improvements might be offset by cross-border pollution.

As a side note, the Kai Tak nullah, has been renamed Kai Tak river and has seen the return of grey mullets. This drainage channel in the old airport area is a catchment for several rivulets from the foothills of the Kowloon mountains, but was surrounded by rapidly growing factories and homes from the 1960’s to the late 1980’s which discharged all their effluent into it. It was so badly polluted and foul smelling that at one point there was a plan to completely cover it up and make it subterranean! Luckily science prevailed in the planning and there is now a scheme to remediate and green the area and especially the river. Obviously this wi take years, but the effort seems to already be beating fruits. See the project website here for more details.

The former Kai Tak Nullah now Kai Tak River at Tung Tau Estate
The former Kai Tak Nullah now Kai Tak River at Tung Tau Estate

A Stranded Whale near Hong Kong, Supertyphoon Rammasun And Photoshopped Soldiers

A three-meter whale weighing four tons was stranded on a beach in the city of Yangjiang (about 230 km west of Hong Kong), in Guangdong province, on July 19, 2014. Local police officers and soldiers helped the whale back into the waters after it was washed ashore by waves during super typhoon Rammasun which hit Southern China. It was the strongest typhoon to hit the region in four decades, and brought gales and downpours.

The 3-m stranded whale at Yangjiang, Guandong Province. [Photo/IC]
Some media outlets (West Palm Beach TV , NBC Netwwork) initially reported it as a “killer whale” (Orcinus orca), but it is actually  a juvenile baleen whale – either a Fin, Bryde’s or Sei Whale (the pictures unfortunately don’t show enough details). China Daily also praises the police and soldiers for rescuing the animal, but the pictures show quite clearly that most of the manpower actually came from life guards.

Click here for the CCTV News video report

As the smallest baleen whales can be ruled out, the size of the individual means its a juvenile, perhaps even recently born. Although the efforts to save the whale are admirable, I suspect that separated from its mother and her milk this calf will highly likely die soon.

image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News
image: CCTV News

CCTV also included an image, not seen elsewhere on the web, showing soldiers rescuing the whale, although the image looks quite photoshopped and the weather seems much brighter in that one image….quite why anyone has to manipulate the image here I can’t understand, there is no political connotation here that I can recognize…

The most pointless photoshopping image ever. Suddenly the weather is brighter and the sldiers somehow stand out from the image more clearly. But whats the point?
The most pointless photoshopping image ever. Suddenly the weather is brighter and the soldiers somehow stand out from the image more clearly. But whats the point?

(Source: China Daily, 20/7/2014, and CNTV 20/7/2014)

HK Dolphinwatch, the 3rd Runaway and Underwater Hydraulic Drilling

Yesterday we spent a fantastic morning doing some dolphin watching with HK Dolphinwatch. Leaving from the Tung Chung New Development Pier at Tung Chung we cruised along north Lantau towards Tai O, where we then encountered a group of 5-6 Indopacific Humpback Dolphins (Sousa chinensis), know locally as Chinese White Dolphins or simply the pink dolphins. They gave us plenty to look at with tail-splashing, jumping and coming in quite close to the boat. While I am no photographer and have no clue how to use my Nikon DSLR, I think the resulting pictures are still pretty good.

 

A rare shot showing the dolphins head. You can see the bulge at the front of the head, where an organ called "the melon" is located which plays a role in the dolphins echolocation system.
A rare shot showing the dolphins head. You can see the bulge at the front of the head, where an organ called “the melon” is located which plays a role in the dolphins echolocation system.
Some say its dolphin watching, I wonder though, as this dolphin seems to be out people-watching.
Some say its dolphin watching, I wonder though, as this dolphin seems to be out people-watching.
Coming up for air.
Coming up for air.
Diving down a dolphin stretches its flukes up, that seem to be waving good bye.
Diving down a dolphin stretches its flukes up, that seem to be waving good bye.
Two pink dolphins with the constructions barges for the MAcao-Zhuhai Bridge looming on the horizon.
Two pink dolphins with the constructions barges for the MAcao-Zhuhai Bridge looming on the horizon.
A group of 3 curious dolphins
A group of 3 curious dolphins
A rare shot of a dolphin almost straightedned out with the fluke visible under the water
A rare shot of a dolphin almost straightedned out with the fluke visible under the water
The name Indopacific "Humpback" Dolphin is an apt one.
The name Indopacific “Humpback” Dolphin is an apt one.
A dolphin with a slightly notched dorsal fin in front of our boat
A dolphin with a slightly notched dorsal fin in front of our boat
A dolphin about to smack his flukes loudly on the water surface.
A dolphin about to smack his flukes loudly on the water surface.
The grey color indeicates a younger individual compared to the white dolphin.
The grey color indeicates a younger individual compared to the white dolphin.

If you have kids, this is probably the No.1 outing for your budding marine biologists, not just because of the dolphins (always popular!), but also because you and your kids can see the impact humans have on wildlife right there in front of you. Among the many threats thatthe dolphins face, the latest one is the Macao-Zhuhai-Bridge being constructed right through their habitat, as well as the proposed 3rd runway for the Chek Lap Kok airport. Before the Chek Lap Kok airport was build there were thought to be aroudn 150+ dolphins in the area. Then came the blasting and levelling off of the small island of Chek Lap Kok which was then used to fill in a 9 square kilometer area for the airport as well as surrounding infrastructure and development. And then the construction of the Macao-Zhuhai-Bridge started. Now it is just 60 odd. Why? Among the reasons surely is noise. As most people will know, dolphins don’t just communicate with sound, they also use it for echolocation especially in the murky and muddy waters of estuaries where our pink dolphins live.

The below video was made and posted to Vimeo by Sea Shephard Hong Kong and shows you just how bad the noise levels in the dolphins habitat are.

Underwater construction noise is the equivalent of shining flood lights in humans faces. Imagine trying to make your breakfast, work, do the supermarket shopping, take care of children or hold a normal conversation while all the time someone pointing a search light in your face thats constantly flickering – you would not get much done! And you would be super stressed.
Thats how the dolphins feel – and these constructions projects last several years!
But there is more: add sewage, heavy boat traffic and high speed ferries, toxic algal blooms, heavy metal contamination, PCB’s and organochlorides, flame retardant chemicals to the mix and the fact that there is little to eat because the seas are so overfished and the seabed was trawled so heavily that it does not support much in the way of food production anymore.
Sticking with the dolphin-human analogy: not only would you suffer from blinding lights day-in-day-out for years, your children might be stillborn or die soon after birth because your body passed to your child environmental contaminats from the little food you could find in these famine conditions. And then cars, trucks and trains constantly bomb through your garden and house unpredictably, frequently maiming or even killing a member of your family or a neighbor.
In short, you can see, that you would not want to be reborn as a pink dolphin in Hong Kong!
Unless we start to do something about it. Check out the below links to find out more about how you can help.

Hong Kong Dolphin conservation Society

Voice your concerns about the Third Runway roject with WWF HK

 

 

 

Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund Invites Applications

The Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund has opened for applications. The Fund aims to help the local fisheries community move towards sustainable or high value-added operations so that the trade can enhance its overall competitiveness and cope with new challenges. This will allow fishermen to improve their ability to cope with the changing operating environment as well as their own livelihoods.

A spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said: “Capture fisheries in Hong Kong are affected by the depletion of fisheries resources and the trawl ban. Despite the opportunities available as a result of the restructuring of the fisheries industry, many local fishermen remain cautious about the prospects of growth while others are held back by the risks and technical challenges involved. Meanwhile, aquaculture also needs support for modernisation.

“Against this background, the administration has identified five possible areas for the fishing community and related stakeholders to put the Fund to good use, in furtherance of the objectives of placing the further development of the industry on a sustainable track. Projects not falling within such areas will also be considered as long as they are in line with the purpose of the Fund and meet the assessment criteria.

“The five areas are exploring new opportunities in the South China Sea, development of sustainable practices for fishing operations in Hong Kong waters, aquaculture development, accreditation and marketing of local fisheries products, and fisheries resources monitoring and enhancement.”

In vetting applications, the Advisory Committee on Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund (the Advisory Committee) will give due consideration to the project needs, feasibility and expected outcomes. The projects should contribute in a direct and practical way towards the sustainable development of the local fisheries industry. The benefits they bring about must accrue to the local fisheries community as a whole.

In general, the projects should be non-profit-making, but commercial projects may also be considered. Applicants will be required to draw up detailed business plans and budgets for the Advisory Committee to scrutiny. Projects involving commercial elements will be funded on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis. The Government’s contribution will be limited to no more than 50 per cent of the total project cost.

Eligible applicants include legal entities that have demonstrated a close connection with the local fisheries industry such as local incorporated companies, registered fisheries co-operatives, non-profit-making fisheries organisations, non-governmental organisations or social enterprises, as well as academic and research institutions in Hong Kong.

Applications are accepted throughout the year and the Advisory Committee will meet regularly to vet the applications. Completed application forms, together with information of the applicant demonstrating their connection with the local fisheries industry, should reach the Secretariat for the Fund at least six months prior to the commencement of the project.

Application guidelines and forms can be downloaded from the AFCD website (www.afcd.gov.hk) while hard copy is available from the Secretariat for the Fund and the liaison offices of the Fish Marketing Organization.

Source: The Fish Site, 11/7/2014

Hong Kong gets its ASC sustainable seafood guide

The latest edition of the Sustainable Seafood Guide includes information for seafood consumers in Hong Kong shopping for responsibly farmed fish.

For the first time, the guide educates on the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) logo for responsible aquaculture.

“This is a great step forward in informing Asian seafood customers about the ASC. By choosing seafood with the ASC logo, shoppers can make a difference and help protecting oceans, vulnerable marine environments and local farm communities,” said ASC’s CEO Chris Ninnes.

There are currently 1,120 ASC certified seafood products available in 37 countries across the globe.

“Not only is our market share growing in Asia, but we have an expanding base of certified farms in the region including Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam; and we anticipate strong future growth,” Ninnes said.

The Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Guide is produced by World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) Hong Kong.

The methodology that the guide is based on has been developed by WWF, Seafood Choices Alliance, North Sea Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society. Fish guides can now be found in 18 countries around the globe.

The ASC on-pack logo was launched in 2012. All ASC labelled products can be traced back through the entire supply chain to a responsible managed fish farm.

Source: Undercurrent News, 9/7/2014

Human Error Kills 59 Fish at Ocean Park

In the early morning of the 3rd of July (2014) 59 fish were found dead at Ocean Parks aquarium,

including a breeding pair of bamboo sharks, two rays and some other fish .

The park said the event was caused by human error, and that the employees involved would receive disciplinary action and that procedures would be reviewed additional sensors installed. An inquiry found that the deaths were the result of a lack of oxygen in the water which lead to the fish suffocating. Normally procedures for tank maintenance allow staff to switch of the wave generator that oxygenates the water for up to 6 hours without causing harm to the fish. In this instance it was switched off for water treatment projects to be carried out, but staff failed to then properly restart it.

Ocean Park has not made a press release available.

Source: RTHK, 14/7/2014

Guns, Condoms and a Lot of Dead Fish – Pui O

A day outing to Pui O beach with the kids. Aside from perfectly new water pistols, a used condom and unstoppable amounts of plastic trash, trapped in the lagoon behind a sandbank at low tide, there were also at least a hundred dead fish including a large puffer fish and two edible species, the grey mullet (Mugil cephalus) and the conger eel (Muraenesox cinereus), though these examples most definitely we’re not edible.
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