Category Archives: Pollution

What is marine pollution? How much pollution is there in Hong Kong waters? What impact does marine pollution have on human health and ecosystem health? What is being done to reduce pollution?

Extinct in hong Kong – the Maxima Clam (Tridacna maxima)- ?

The giant clam Tridacna gigas which can grow to 120 in width and 200 kg in weight is one of a group of clams called giant clams – the Tridacnids. Although T. gigas is the biggest of them, there are others which are still pretty huge by clam standards. One of these giant clam species, the Maxima clam Tridacna maxima, used to occur in Hong Kong. It grows to about 40 cm width, though typically is only around 20 cm in width. But consult the IUCN records for this clam species and you will see that although it occurs throughout the tropical and sub-topical waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, the entry for Hong Kong sadly reads ‘regionally extinct’. When did that happen? Why did they vanish? These are the questions I wanted to find answers to.

When did it go ‘regionally extinct’?

The first entry I could find for the Maxima clam being regionally extinct in Hong Kong is 1983. Unfortunately that’s about all I could find. But at it has been gone from Hong Kong since at least 1983. Unless of course it has returned….its a slow-growing animal but has a very wide dispersal through free-floating larvae that live in the plankton – that’s why it occurs over such a wide geographical area spanning nearly a quarter of the planet! So theoretically, if conditions are right (see more below) and larvae are swept over Hong Kong or are purposely introduced by humans, the Maxima clam could reestablish itself in Hong Kong.  So the next question is why did it go extinct in Hong Kong in the first place?

a Maxima clam tucked into some hard coral (via WikiCommons)
a Maxima clam tucked into some hard coral (via WikiCommons)
What happened to the Maxima clam in Hong Kong?

Apart from the fact that the Maxima clam lived on coral reefs in Hong Kong waters, I can not find any more details of how big the population was, which exact areas in inhabited (obviously coral reefs, so that narrows it to Eastern and Southern Hong Kong waters) or whether it was harvested locally. It is however clear that Hong Kong used to be a big regional market for giant clam species in Asia. Giant clams were and still are a delicacy in Asia (mostly the meat big abductor muscle) and the shell was used for decoration (though not extensively). Even the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has no useful fisheries statistics for Tridacnids. So there is no information on how many – if any – were harvested from Hong Kong waters before they disappeared.  The maxima clam like all clams is a filter feeder which suck in water, filters out and swallows edible particles and then ejects the water out again. As such it is quite vulnerable to toxic substances in the water. In addition, it harbors symbiotic microscopic algae called zooxanthellae (zoo-oh-zan-the-lay) in its tissue. These absorb the clams waste  products like CO2 and photosynthesize turning them into sugars in the presence of sunlight and giving off oxygen for the clam.

When open, the bright blue, green or brown mantle of the clam is exposed and obscures the edges of the shell which have prominent distinctive furrows. The attractive colours of the mantle are the result of pigment cells, with a crystalline structure inside. These are thought to protect the clam from the effects of intense sunlight, or to bundle light to enhance photosynthesis of the zooxanthellae.

 

1024px-Coral_reefs
Maxima clams – one open showing the brightly colored mantle, the other closed and only identified by the zig-zag pattern of the shell valves. (via WikiCommons)

This is essentially what corals do, too, which is why they share the same habitat – coral reefs. And like most reef corals the maxima clam also gets most of its nutrients from its zooxanthellae . Coral reefs suffer enormous damage from smothering by sediment that washes into the sea from rivers and rainfall and from clouding of the water and smothering by excessive algal blooms. Both of these were and still are to some extent big problems for Hong Kong waters, whereas in the past this was not the case. Algal blooms and sediment runoff increased a lot as a result of the increase in human population in Hong Kong and as a result of rapid industrialization and the associated water pollution. This combined with harvesting seems to be the most likely reason for the disappearance of the Maxima clam from Hong Kong waters before 1983.

Will there ever be giant clams in Hong Kong again?

I hope so. Like I said earlier, if conditions are right, any of the wide-ranging planktonic larvae of the clam that stray into Hong Kong waters could settle and grow to adulthood. Failing that humans could also try to establish them by attaching cultured juveniles to appropriate spots on reefs – but this is more complicated and costly, although Singapore has attempted this with initial success using another giant clam species Tridacna squamosa. But the main criteria is suitable conditions for a population to establish and grow – in other words we need clean seas again. Hong Kong has improved a lot on this front up until very recently, when the increased coastal development in southern China started to create a lot of water pollution which somewhat diminishes the results. There is still a long way to go. But I would say that divers should keep an eye out. In fact, the ReefCheck 2015 recorder forms even have a section for giant clams (Tridacna sp.), so its not just me that is hopeful! You never know. you could be diving some coral reef in Sai Kung, Tung Ping Chau, Hoi Ha Wan or the Ninepin Islands and come across a maxima clam. It might be an old dead one stuck in a reef with just the wavy outline of the two shell valves (probably) or it could have the fat, bright blue or green mantle of a live clam – in which case 1) hooray for Hong Kong and 2) please report your finding to the AFCD and Reef Check!

Dead Fish Found Along Kwun Tong Promenade

Thousands of dead fish were found floating in the water along the Kwun Tong promenade over the weekend
(11-7-12/7/2015), releasing a strong stench that many passersby found unbearable.
The dead fish covered a two-kilometer stretch along the promenade, and it took the Marine Department seven hours to clean up about 2,000 kilos, Apple Daily reported.

Several species were identified, including tilapia, seabream, grey mullet and spotted silver scat.

Cheung Ma-shan, science manager at the Eco-Education and Resources Center, said the mass death could be due to the low oxygen content in the water caused by typhoon Linfa.

Chong Dee-hwa from the Ichthyological Society of Hong Kong said the typhoon could have stirred up mud and toxins from the bottom of the sea, thus affecting fish populations.

The Department of Environmental Protection was undertaking tests of water samples obtained in the vicinity.

South China Sea Reef Destroyers Want Your Money

According to a recent FT.com article the company responsible for most of the destruction of coral reefs and reef habitat in the disputed Spratly Islands is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and is planning an overseas listing.

China Communications Construction Company (HK:1800), a large state-owned infrastructure group, announced in March that it was integrating its three dredging assets into a new company, CCCC Dredging, which it would eventually list overseas. That entity was set up in Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone on Wednesday.

China’s dredging programme has created about half a dozen islands in the South China Sea with deepwater harbours and at least one airstrip.

In the past 18 months, according to the US defence secretary, at least 2,000 acres of land have been reclaimed — more than has been done in 60 years by other claimants to the territory, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Satellite images analysed by IHS Jane’s, the defence consultancy, show that Tianjin Dredging Company, one of CCCC Dredging’s three subsidiaries, operates most of the giant barges that have been digging sand from the seabed and piling it on remote coral atolls with names such as Mischief Reef, Suba Reef and Fiery Cross.

The flotation plans are curious for secretive Tianjin. A listing would require greater transparency and focus more attention on its activities.

In March CCCC said in a filing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, where it has been listed since 2006, that it “intends to seek listing of CCCC Dredging overseas at an appropriate market timing”.

Hongkongers and potential overseas investors should be aware that CCCC is not an ethical investment. 

Source: FT,com June 11th, 2015

Vietnam Also Guilty of Destroying Reefs in S. China Sea

It is not just China destroying reefs in the South China Sea by reclaiming land to form island outposts to boost territorial claims. Vietnam is also reclaiming land by dumping enormous amounts of sand on two reefs destroying coral communities and changing the local ecology and likely adversely affecting fish stocks.

The photographs, shared with Reuters by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), show an expansion of the land area of Vietnamese-controlled Sand Cay and West London Reef in the Spratly archipelego and the addition of buildings.

 

Sandy Cay (largest islet in the image) is small islet in the South China Sea occupied by Vietnam. it is visited by seabirds and was home to a rich marine diversity.
 

The director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (http://amti.csis.org/), said the work included military installations and appeared to have started before China began a flurry of reclamation projects last year. “On one site, it has constructed a significant new area that was formerly under water and at another it has used land reclamation to add acreage to an existing island,” Rapp-Hooper said.

The images showed that Vietnam had reclaimed about 65,000 square meters (699,654 square feet) of land at West London Reef and 21,000 square meters (226,042 square feet) at Sand Cay. This compared to 900,000 square meters (9.6 million square feet) reclaimed by China at a single reef, Fiery Cross.
 
Satellite images show that since about March 2014, China had conducted reclamation work at seven sites in the Spratlys and was constructing a military-sized air strip on one artificial island and possibly a second on another.

It appears that claimants to the South China Sea have entered into a land building race that destroys ecology and depletes fish stocks as a result. There can be no real winners in such a race – everybody will lose.

International Ban on Toxic Ship Paint (TBT) Likely to Be (Finally) Fully Implemented in HK Soon

On the 21st of April a committee meeting was held in Legco (HK law making body) to discuss a new regulation on harmful anti-fouling systems. The legislation seeks to ban the use of organotin such as tributylin (TBT) compounds in paints used on ships which kill any organisms trying to colonize the hulls such as barnacles, worm, mussels, algae and others. Despite a lot of petty squabbling (and personal digs at the previous colonial administrations) it looks hopeful that regulation may eventually make it to a 2nd and 3rd reading in Legco and pass into law.

Tributylin (TBT) is a chemical that was used extensively in anti-fouling paints (bottom paints) on ships to improve efficiency by preventing invertebrates and plants clinging to the hulls. TBT is the most successful anti-fouling agent ever invented and was relatively cheap. It was used extensively for 40 years. But TBT slowly leaches out into the marine environment where it is highly toxic to a wide range of organisms beyond the organisms that it was intended to kill. By poisoning barnacles, algae, and other organisms at the bottom of the food chain, TBT levels are concentrated (biomagnified) up the marine food web and even up to us humans. It also causes developmental problems in marine organisms. One of the most studied organisms are marine snails, such as the Dog whelk (Nucella lapillus) in Europe and America.  TBT leads a condition termed ‘imposex’ where female snails are ‘masculinized’ and grow penises.  Since fewer fertile females are then available for mating, the population begins to decline, which disturbs the balance of the ecosystem.

Large ocean going vessels frequently used anti-fouling bottom paints containing TBT to keep barnacles and other adhesive animals off the hulls to lower resistance and save fuel. (via WikiCommons)
Large ocean-going vessels frequently used anti-fouling bottom paints containing TBT to keep barnacles and other adhesive animals off the hulls to lower resistance and save fuel. (via WikiCommons)

Vertebrates such as fish and mammals can become affected by TBT through contact with waters contaminated with TBT and by eating already poisoned seafood.  The Japanese rice fish (Oryzias latipes), has been used as a model to test the effects of TBT at different developmental stages of the embryo. Scientists found that as TBT concentration increased the developmental rate decreased and that tail abnormalities occurred as a result. Studies have shown that TBT is harmful to the immune system. Research also shows that TBT reduces resistance to infection in fish which live on the seabed and experience high levels of TBT. These areas tend to have silty sediment like harbours and estuaries (like Hong Kong). Mammals, exposed to TBT through their diet, also suffer. TBT can lead to immunosuppression in sea-otters and dolphins. High levels of TBT were found in the livers of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) and stranded bottlenose dolphins. TBT has also been blamed by hearing experts for causing hearing loss in mammalian top predators such as whales. Because hearing is important for mating and predation in these animals, long-term consequences could be drastic.

Bottlenose dolphins are affected (via WikiCommons)
Bottlenose dolphins sometimes have high levels of TBT in their livers (via WikiCommons)

How TBT can move up the food chain was shown by one study that found most samples of skipjack tuna tested positive for TBT. Tuna from waters around developing Asian nations had particularly high levels of TBT most likely because the regulation of TBT is not as well enforced in Asia as it is in Europe or the US.

Skipjack Tuna sushi - can contain levels of TBT (via WikiCommons)
Skipjack Tuna sushi – can contain levels of TBT (via WikiCommons)

In addition TBT last for a long time in the marine environment. Its half-life in the marine environment is around 25 years. TBT sticks to seabed sediments. But that process is reversible and depends on the pH of the seawater. Studies have shown that 95% of TBT can be released from the sediments back into the aquatic environment. This release makes it difficult to quantify the amount of TBT in an environment, since its concentration in the water is not representative of its availability.

TBT Pollution in Hong Kong

In 1995 a study showed that 3 of the 4 species examined had sign of distorted sex organ development (imposex) and the authors inferred TBT as the cause. Another study in 2000 of 24 species found 5 species with imposex. Again the author inferred TBT as cause. In 2001 a study found the concentration required to cause imposex for one local species was as low as 0.000001 grams per liter.

Like these European dogwhelk snails,  several species of local marine snails have been shown to have suffered TBT-induced maldevelopment of sex organs. (via WikiCommons)
Like these European dogwhelk snails, several species of local marine snails have been shown to have suffered TBT-induced maldevelopment of sex organs. (via WikiCommons)

In the 2004-2012 monitoring, TBT was generally not detected in marine water, river water, sewage effluent or storm water runoff samples by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD). According to the EPD the levels of TBT in Hong Kong marine sediments mostly met Australia‘s sediment quality guideline for the protection of benthic organisms and were generally within the range (falling on the low-side) reported in other Asian countries, such as Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia. The levels of TBT in the biota species were low and largely comparable with the levels for biota in the Pearl River Estuary area.

The Actions of the Hong Kong  Government

The production, import and export of TBT paints was already banned in HK. In 1990, the Marine Environment Protection Committee recommended that the Government eliminate the use of TBT-containing antifouling paints on smaller vessels. This was intended to be a temporary restriction until the International Maritime Organization could implement a complete ban of TBT anti-fouling agents for ships, which it did in 2001. The use of TBT in antifouling paint was banned (deregistered) in Hong Kong in 1992.  But this new HK regulation seeks to now fully implement the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships from 2001 which includes certification requirement for large ships in Hong Kong waters and also extends to Hong Kong registered ships anywhere in the world.

The LEGCO (legislative council) conmplex in Central where the new regulation is being discussed. (via WikiCommons)
The LEGCO (legislative council) conmplex in Central where the new regulation is being discussed. (via WikiCommons)

The Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships came about in 2001. Mainland China implemented this Convention in 2011, but Hong Kong (as a major port city) is only now discussing this.

Despite the international bans, TBT will most likely be present in the water column and sediment for up to twenty years because of its long half-life.

Violations of the Ban 

Even though its banned by some international agencies, TBT anti-fouling paints are still being used in some countries with poor regulation enforcement, such as countries in the Caribbean.


Note: the new subsidiary legislation (title: Merchant Shipping (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Ordinance (Cap. 413) Merchant Shipping (Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships) Regulation) was published in the Gazette on the 20th of March 2015, introduced into the Legislative Council on 25 March 2015. It was refered for discussion to the subcommittee on Merchant Shipping on the 10th of April 2015. In their report published on the 6th of May 2015 the subcommittee supported the subsidiary legislation. Having cleared the first hurdle.

Does the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant Affect the Marine Environment?

As most HKers know there is a nuclear power plant less than 100km away in nearby Longgang District of Shenzhen. Have you ever wondered wether it’s leaking radioactivity into the sea close to HK?

Well, a study about to be published in the Journal of Environmentsl Radioactivity looked at a sediment core just off the water spout if the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) to see if the power plant had caused any new radioactivity in the sediment beyond normal background radiation. A sediment core is sort of like a layered-cake with each layer capturing the chemistry of the environment at a certain time. The deeper you dig the further back in time you go. In the deep sea at 5000 meters a sediment slice of 1 mm can be the result of 1000 years of sedimentation, but in coastal environment it’s more like 10 cm per year depending on local sediment inputs.

 

Core samples – chemical time machines.
 
The answer to the question of extra radiation from the Daya Bay NPP seems to be no. No new radiation was added to the marine ecosystem, as nothing more than natural background radiation was found in the layers following the operation of the NPP. But the researchers did find a substantial impact on the marine ecosystem from the NPP’s cooling water discharge which caused changes in the level of organic carbon in the sediment. NPP’ require a lot of cooling water taken from nearby seawater. This water should not come into contact with radioactive material but should just absorb heat. The heated water is then discharged back into the sea where it raises the sea temperature locally creating localised changes to the environment. 

But at least we can rest at ease that we are not eating radioactive seafood! (unless it’s imported from the Fukushima Coast…)

Marine Refuse Study Report Released

Since the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS) and extension of the sewerage programmes to cover 93% of the population, marine water quality in Hong Kong has been improving since 2002. Compliance with the Water Quality Objectives for Victoria Harbour improved from 50% in 2001 to 77% in 2014. The water quality of the Harbour will further improve after the full implementation of the HATS Stage 2A later this year. To further reduce marine refuse, the Working Group on Clean Shorelines conducted the Marine Refuse Study.

The report says that more than 95% of marine refuse originates from local sources. And 80% of this locally generated waste comes from land-based sources – especially from shoreline and recreational activities – the result of littering and poor awareness by members of the community.

Of the non-natural waste more than 70% was made upo of plastic and foam plastic items. Non-local refuse (identified via its simplified Chinese character labels) made up less than 5% of the marine refuse collected.

THE EPD is looking at a three-pronged strategy to address the local marine refuse problem:

  • reducing overall waste generation at source
  • reducing the amount of refuse entering the marine environment
  • removing the marine refuse.

The five key measures devised to implement the strategy are:

  • publicity campaigns and education activities
  • support measures
  • facilities to reduce refuse entering the marine environment
  • stepped-up efforts to remove marine refuse
  • engaging the public to report marine littering and refuse problemsThe report also shows that the prevailing wind direction has a marked effect on refuse accumulation, particularly in the Tuen Mun, Tsuen Wan, Southern and Islands Districts. It identifies 27 priority sites prone to refuse accumulation where cleaning frequency will be increased.

The EPD will also launch a monthly Shorelines Cleanup Day with schools and community groups as co-organisers.

(The full report is available at www.epd.gov.hk/epd/clean_shorelines)