Pygmy Sperm Whale Stranding near Sha Tau Kok

A 3.3 m long, 386 kg whale was found by hikers on Friday (26th September 2014) on the rocky shoreline at Fung Hang village near Sha Tau Kok (NE New Territories). Due to the remote location of the site, AFCD staff decided to suspend the investigation, as night fell. Officers tied the dead whale with a rope to fix it on the beach and prevent it from drifting away during the rising tide. Experts joined the investigation the following day to identify the dead whale species and the cause of death.

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Images by Ocean Park Conservation Fund. 9/2014.

The whale did not have any obvious fatal wounds or signs of infection, but had begun to rot and some of the gray-black skin was peeing off.
A preliminary veterinary inspection suggests that it is a pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps).

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The Pygmy Sperm Whale

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Drawing showing relative size of a Pygmy Sperm Whale and a human

This species is normally found in deep waters several hundred to a thousand meters deep such as off Taiwan’s east coast. Hong Kong waters are only tens of meters deep, so pygmy sperm whales generally do not live or pass through Hong Kong. Most likely the whale got lost or was already dying while passing by Hong Kong waters and then drifted in to shore.

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Image: News163.com

Skin , teeth, subcutaneous fat , heart, reproductive system and muscle samples were taken for further testing and City University of Hong Kong will receive the whale carcasses to produce bone specimens.

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Map by Mingpao Daily.

Ciguatera Fish Poisoning Case Reported in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the Department of Health is investigating a suspected ciguatera poisoning case affecting a 38-year-old man. The patient, with good past health, developed symptoms of ciguatera poisoning including facial and tongue numbness, skin itchiness over the forehead and the neck, abdominal pain and diarrhoea about two to three hours after eating a marine fish at home on September 24.
He attended the Accident and Emergency Department of Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital on September 25 and was subsequently admitted. He is now in stable condition. The CHP’s investigations are ongoing.

Ciguatera fish poisoning is not uncommon in tropical areas. More than 400 species of fish have been implicated in this food borne illness that’s relatively common in several areas of the world. This toxin is the result of the accumulation of marine algae and the toxins they produce passing up the food chain. These marine algae hang on to dead coral and seaweed. They are then eaten by herbivore fish which are subsequently eaten by predatory reef fish which concentrates the toxin in its tissue.
The toxin accumulates in the fish body, in particular in internal organs, through eating small fish that consumed toxic algae in coral reef seas. A larger fish is therefore more likely to carry higher amounts of the toxin. However, it is not easy to tell from the appearance of the fish whether it contains the toxin. The reef fishes are more likely to get contaminated during storms and other turbulence.

People affected may show symptoms of numbness of the mouth and the limbs, vomiting, diarrhoea, pain in the joints and muscles. An unusual characteristic that is common in ciguatera is temperature reversal. This may be seen from 2 to 5 days after eating the fish. Hot objects seem cold and cold objects can give a shock-like sensation. There have been serious injuries because a person was unable to recognize extremely hot sensations. Other odd symptoms are food may taste metallic and teeth may seem painful or loose.Most people affected by ciguatoxin would recover without long-term health effects, but if excessive toxins are consumed, the circulatory and nervous systems can be affected.
Symptoms may come back after ingesting certain foods and drinks; alcohol, caffeine, nuts and fish.
There are no laboratory tests to diagnose this disease and it’s based on clinical symptoms and a history ofeating an offending fish.

Ciguatera fish poisoning is the most common form of neurotoxin poisoning associated with the consumption of fish in Hong Kong. From 2000 to 12 June 2013, the Centre for Food Safety had received 284 referrals of CFP from the Department of Health (see Figure). A total of 867 persons were affected.

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Number of ciguatoxins cases from 2000 to 2013 (Up to 12 June 2013)

The reporting of CFP occurred year round. However, it was observed that over 60% of total cases were reported in March to July of the year. The number of person affected also provided similar observation.

Different kinds of coral reef fish caught in the wild were known to be associated with CFP. Black fin red snapper, Tiger grouper, Lyretail, Leopard coral grouper, Areolated coral grouper and Moray eel were the top six common types of fish linked to CFP, accounting for over 50% of CFP cases. Farmed fish which was usually fed by formulated pellet or trash fish was not likely the source of toxins.

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Fish commonly involved in CFP from 2000 to 12 June 2013.

The toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking. To prevent ciguatera fish poisoning, you should observe the following measures:

* Eat less coral reef fish;
* Eat small amounts of coral reef fish at any one meal and avoid having a whole fish feast in which all the dishes come from the same big coral reef fish;
* Avoid eating the head, skin, intestines and roe of coral reef fish, which usually have a higher concentration of toxins;
* When eating coral reef fish, avoid consuming alcohol, peanuts or beans as they may aggravate ciguatoxin poisoning;
* Seek medical treatment immediately should symptoms of ciguatoxin fish poisoning appear; and
* Coral reef fish should be purchased from reputable and licensed seafood shops. Do not buy the fish when the source is doubtful.

Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety Ciguatera page

Frankenstein’s Fish via The Coral Triangle

“AquAdvantage® Salmon…advanced hybrid salmon designed to grow faster.” Could you get a starker strapline for the commodification of fauna? As the challenges of feeding an exploding global population continue to grow, branded animals like these GM salmon produced by biotech company Aquabounty Technologies could be commonplace, but what about the dangers? GM salmon made headlines recently, with some fearing threats to wild stocks in the Atlantic if they were to escape.

Hybrid grouper on the other hand get almost no media attention, yet they potentially pose a far greater danger.  Hybridization is big business in South East Asia, where aquaculture businesses are interbreeding valuable grouper species  in a bid to create a fast growing  super fish.

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Live grouper are highly prized in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan and other parts of South East Asia. They crowd tanks in seafood restaurants and are ubiquitous at Chinese wedding banquets and other formal occasions, where tradition demands they are served. Grouper can  sell for more than US$100 a kilo and very large or rare specimens for much more. The market is huge – in Hong Kong alone, a staggering 3.6 million grouper are consumed each year.

But demand has led to rampant overfishing across South East Asia’s Coral Triangle bioregion.  Fishermen often use cyanide to stun fish, destroying coral reefs in the process. According to a recent University of Hong Kong study, one in ten grouper species face extinction if current trends aren’t arrested.

On the face of it, advanced aquaculture techniques offer a way of fulfilling market demand while reducing the pressure on wild populations. Grouper are nurtured first in hatcheries from cultivated eggs and then in coastal cages or sometimes factories on land. The goal of hybridization is to achieve the holy trinity of rapid growth rates, resilience and superior taste.

“Hybridization of grouper isn’t new,” says Geoffrey Muldoon, a marine biologist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) “In 1996 the University of Malaysia in Sabah, Borneo produced a giant grouper/tiger grouper, dubbed the Sabah Grouper specifically for live reef fish food markets in Hong Kong,” he explains. The hybrid was a huge success with consumers and a boom followed. “Fast forward almost two decades and the science of grouper hybridisation has exploded,” says Muldoon.

In the early days, scientists only experimented with cross breeding natural grouper species. But then researchers in Taiwan went a step further. They began breeding hybrids with naturals and then different hybrids with each other. According to Irwin Wong, a live fish trader in Sabah, at last count, there were at least 12 new hybrid grouper variants and research is continuing in what has become a race to create a super grouper.

GM salmon are farmed inland, making escape relatively unlikely.  But grouper are often kept in cages at sea.. “The fact is, hybrids may already have escaped,” says Wong. “If there’s a storm, fish often get free.” His fear is that two hybrids will breed in the wild. “If that happened, the effects on the ecosystem could be devastating.”

Grouper are hermaphrodites – or monandric protogynous hermaphrodites to give them their full title. Early in their growth cycle they are females, but in adulthood they can change into males. No one knows the precise trigger for this transformation, though size, age and environmental factors all play a part. Hybrid groupers in captivity are all female – but in the wild they could easily change sex, according to Wong. Which brings up the possibility of a sort of “X-Grouper” wreaking havoc with the food chain.

The current scientific consensus is that hybrid grouper are infertile – but since their reproductive cycle is still not fully understood, this is far from fact. At an Intergovernmental Forum of the six Coral Triangle countries in early 2013, experts agreed that “the hybridization of grouper has reached an alarming level, that escapes pose an as yet unknown risk to local wild populations and that this issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Experts are meeting again to discuss the issue at the world’s first World Coral Reef Conference in Indonesia on 16 May.

The live reef fish for food trade is a notoriously under regulated industry. It’s also highly lucrative – worth as much as US$1 billion annually. But consumption tends to follow a boom and bust cycle. Once the Sabah Grouper became readily available its per kilo value dropped dramatically. “The pursuit of a faster growing hybrid species is understandable, but there is little evidence to suggest patterns of consumer demand truly merit more efforts on hybridisation,” says Muldoon. He believes the industry needs to self-regulate for hybridisation to become viable. More research on both the science and the market for groupers is desperately needed – but criminal elements and an industry wide culture of secrecy makes this difficult.

In the meantime, the possibility of a “Frankenfish” wreaking havoc across reef ecosystems in the Coral Triangle is a real and growing danger.

via FRANKENSTEIN’S FISH | Stories | The Coral Triangle.

Where Does All the Beach Trash Come From?

While I have no doubt that much of the plastic trash on Hong Kong’s beaches and in the sea is generated locally especially during big beach events like Mid-Autumn Festival and Tuen Ng (Dragon Boat Festival) – I don’t remember it ever being as bad as it is nowadays. I grew up playing on Hong Kong beaches and actually had fun building huts out of some of the trash like driftwood, lost buoys and discarded wooden palettes. But as I remember it there was a lot of styrofoam trash (ice boxes and luch boxes and drink cups) and also plastic. But a lot of progress was made educating people not to discard their trash in country parks or in the sea with posters and TV ads. Then just as I thought it was getting better it startied getting worse. Yes, there has been an increase in Hong Kong’s population from 5.5 million when I was a child to 7 million now, but I don’t think thats to blame – the culture in Hong Kong has changed and people to guard and protect the environment much more now.

But mainlad China has changed enornously in the last 30 years starting with the economic reforms and special economic zone in Shenzhen in 1982 (or thereabouts). Now mainland China has all the same plastic packaged consumer goods and convenience foods and bottled drinks etc as Hong Kong. That has definitely changed. But the attitude to the environment is much slower to change. Big factories and local governments are being blamed for single-point pollution problems (quite rightly), but an awareness of the effects of individual actions and habits on the environment is not developed yet. So while HK has several marine-themed environmental programs and education campaigns (like Plastic Free Seas and The Hong Kong Shark Foundation etc) and volunteer-run beach clean-ups are quite common, I doubt that is the case in mainland China (if you know differently, please leave a comment).trashgate3

So the following articles from the Shanghaiist come as no surprise, but shed some light on where at least some of the trash on Hong Kong’s beaches comes from:

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That last one in particular explains a lot. Shenzhen Bay afterall is right next to Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta can flush trash straight into and past HK’s western edge (west Lantau) and out into the South China Sea. And the incoming tide can bring this trash as well as trash from other coastal soureces back in and onto our shores. More than that, the prevailing currents in Hong Kong change: from the northeast or the southwest depending on the season, so the notion of rubbish from Qingdao 1600 km away or Hainan 650 km away reaching Hong Kong is entirely reasonable and quite probable. trashgate2

We can not blame mainlanders for HK beach trash (even if mainlander bashing has apparently become a sport in HK), but it is clear that the ocean and the trash do not respect the HK-SAR border and to tackle the problem of beach trash on Hong Kong’s beaches and in the sea around us, we also need to work with the mainland and maybe use our experience in Hong Kong and our expertise to help them. Afterall HK has dealt with this problem for longer and “the pot should not call the kettle black”. And as the article “Foreign man is dubbed a ‘hero’ for picking up trash on Qingdao beach” shows, mainlanders are also fed up with the rubbish, but they seem to not realise that individual actions or inaction are part of the problem. So if you are expat in China, please be a “foreign hero” and teach by setting a good example (and don’t blame Chinese people for the trash – I have overheard that conversation several times and its pretty hypocritical – and racist). 

“If you would lift me up you must be on higher ground.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nuclear Sea Pineapple’s Coming to Hong Kong

A report on a Japanese Fukushima-themed blog suggests that ‘sea pineapples’ – the restaurant name for the ascidian or sea squirt species Halocynthia roretzi – from the area of Fukushima may soon find it’s way to Hong Kong. The report, which I have not independently verified yet, states that the Miyagi Fisheries cooperative is planning to export this species by air via Okinawa to Hong Kong, which may allow it to label the Origin as Okinawa instead of Miyagi Prefecture, Japan’ which some may recognise as very close to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Facility which is still leaking radioactive elements into the surrounding sea.
‘Sea pineapples’ are apparently a Korean delicacy and also served as sushi in Japan.
The Miyagi fishery cooperative are also planning to export seaweed to Hong Kong along the same lines.