Protecting Hong Kong's waters
“The problem is in Hong Kong…development, conservation and fishermen’s livelihood are always in conflict,” Dr Mak says. When it comes to preserving Hong Kong’s marine life, it’s all about striking the right balance and there’s a long way to go. Decades of fishing paired with a drive to increase productivity have decimated marine life. But that’s not to say nothing can be done. The establishment of marine parks and reserves protects vulnerable species and ecosystems.
At the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conversation Department, Dr Mak Yiu Ming consults local fishermen and women to establish new marine parks that protect Hong Kong’s precious ecosystems.
When a particular species or area is identified as being in need of protection, ecologists first establish the sort of rules needed to best protect the animals. For example, ship propellers believe to be a problem to dolphins. To combat this, speed limit was set in marine parks, with no boat allowed to go over ten knots.
The eastern parts of Hong Kong are home to many species of coral. In Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park, ships are not permitted to anchor anywhere they please. Instead, certain areas, a safe distance away from coral colonies, are designated as anchoring zones. These rules apply to all marine parks of Hong Kong.
After the boundaries of the marine-park-to-be are laid out, the Government needs to communicate with the local fisherpeople as one of the stakeholders. Mak says it always comes down to negotiations.
Sometimes though, the needs of the environment come first. When the ban on trawling was put into place in 2012, fisherpeople with vessels built for trawling were in a bit of a bind. So as not to leave them stranded, the Government also provides training in skills like Mandarin or computers to help them re-enter the workforce in other industry.
For many families who traditionally relied on fishing to survive, the ageing generation is the last who will rely on the ocean to get by. Most of the younger generation is leaving their seaward roots behind and heading into the city to find work. But for that last generation who still rely on their catch of the day, fishing is all they’ve known.
And it’s no easy job. Operating a fishing boat and going out every day to catch enough to get by and make a little money on the side is tough. With training and encouragement, some fisherpeople are given the option to enter into work in different fields.
Sometimes their potential new careers draw on their expertise in piloting boats, obtaining pleasure craft licenses to take tourists out exploring Hong Kong’s waters and harder-to-reach islands.
Pieces in Nature's machine
Dr Mak’s postgraduate research took him all around Southeast Asia, searching for new species of sea snails. While very small, these snails are still an important part of their ecosystem. And after months of searching, many new species were identified, just going to show how much more we have to learn about the natural world. Every organism fits into the environment in some way, from a blue whale to a microscopic snail. Only through constant curiosity and discovery can we piece together the incredibly complex systems nature has put in place so that we can better protect them.
And Mak does stress the importance of backing up conservational efforts with science. Mak mentions one effort in particular that seems to be going quite well. Groups of schoolchildren adopted baby horseshoe crabs, raising them until they are large enough to return to the wild. Conservational efforts like this have two pronged benefits. First, the horseshoe crabs are provided with a safe space to grow, allowing them to reach a size at which they’ll have a greater chance of survival once re-introduced into the wild. Second, and possibly most important, the students who nurture and raise these strange crabs learn about the importance of conservation and protecting endangered species.
When it comes to protecting the environment, knowledge about the way nature’s delicate systems run is critical, and fostering care and reverence for Hong Kong’s ‘wild’ side will hopefully lead to a more environmentally conscious and sustainable future.
Now working at the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department in Hong Kong, Dr Mak Yiu Ming completed his PhD at the University of Hong Kong Department of Ecology and Biodiversity in 1995 with a Croucher Fellowship.
To view Dr Mak's personal Croucher profile, please click here.