Subject: Case Study: Hong Kong & Dolphins

Michael Williamson (whe_william)
Mon, 14 Dec 1994 15:59:53

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Subject: Case Study: Hong Kong & Dolphins
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----------------------------Original message----------------------------
 National Geographic
 For AP Special Features
   HONG KONG -- A $20.3 billion public-works project may improve the
lives of humans in this teeming British colony, but it threatens
the future of the Chinese white dolphins that swim in surrounding
   Relatively little is known about the marine mammals, also known
as Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins, that dwell in murky waters
near river mouths, in this case Hong Kong's Pearl River.
   Despite their name, they're not white. "The striking thing
about them is that they're bubble-gum pink," says Stephen
Leatherwood of Hong Kong, chairman of the Cetacean Specialist Group
of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
   "They're a little more circumspect than the classic oceanic
dolphins," he says. Those include the well-known bottlenoses, the
playful, intelligent creatures made famous by Flipper.
   Kenneth S. Norris, a retired professor of natural history at the
University of California, Santa Cruz, and a student of dolphins for
more than 40 years, recalls an encounter with a humpback.
   "I've actually been challenged by one of these animals that was
in captivity in Australia," he says. "It was fairly feisty." The
dolphin, in an aquarium tank that had just been drained, was able
to move around on its pectoral fins. "It stood its ground,"
Norris says. "It would snap at you."
   Indo-Pacific humpbacks inhabit broad stretches of coastal and
inland waters in the Indian and Western Pacific oceans. They and
their relatives are found off the coasts of Australia, Africa,
India and China.
   Hong Kong's dolphin population, possibly numbering between 50
and 100, is in worse trouble than many others.
   Three-quarters of the world's dredging equipment and cranes are
now in Hong Kong waters to complete a new international airport,
port facilities and a massive land reclamation project.
   Dredging and blasting add pollution and danger to the dolphins'
already polluted habitat, which includes more than half of Hong
Kong's untreated sewage, along with industrial wastes, pesticides
and other toxins.
   Dredging fills the harbor water with silt, making it difficult
for the dolphins to find food.
   Dynamite-blasting can destroy a dolphin's hearing and sonar
system, making it impossible for it to function, and shock waves
can cause lung damage and internal bleeding.
   By 1997, when the airport is completed, more than 1,000 acres of
sea will have been filled in. According to the Hong Kong
Environmental Protection Department, all the construction work and
land formation will have generated more than 338 million cubic
yards of waste mud and rock.
   The Hong Kong dolphins are most commonly found in groups of four
to 12, called pods, near the confluence of the Pearl River and the
China Sea. Because they must breathe every two minutes, they rarely
venture into water deeper than 8 meters and tend to keep to a
narrow strip of water northwest of Lantau, Hong Kong's largest
outlying island.
   Unfortunately for the dolphins, the new airport is being built
on Chek Lap Kok Island, just off Lantau.
   Chinese white dolphins had never been formally studied until
1990. That year, fearing that the newly announced airport project
would destroy the animals' habitat, the Worldwide Fund for Nature
Hong Kong (WWF) and the Hong Kong Marine Conservation Society
initiated a sighting program.
   In 1993, Brian Morton of Hong Kong University's Zoology
Department and two British graduate students, Lindsay Porter and
Chris Parsons, began a three-year-study of the dolphins. The
$256,000 study, under the auspices of the university's Swire Marine
Laboratory, is financed by the British colony's Agriculture and
Fisheries Department.
   One known pod of eight to 12 dolphins has disappeared since
airport construction began, says Joanna Ruxton, senior conservation
officer for the WWF.
   Porter says some dolphins seem to be moving slightly to the
south, but persistently remain in the development area despite the
dangers. She has, according to the latest reports, identified
fifty-two individual dolphins.
   Many of them appear to be unusually thin, their skeletons
clearly evident beneath their blubber, she says. "They are clearly
dependent on something there, though we do not yet know if it is
the water depth or food," she tells National Geographic.
   Dolphins are no more immune than their human counterparts to
other hazards of life in Hong Kong. Five dolphins are known to have
died there in the past two years, one apparently in a boating
accident. Two others may have been infected with cholera.
   In 1991, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species (CITES) classified the Chinese white dolphin as
"insufficiently known" and placed it in Appendix 1, which forbids
commercial trade in a species.
   Margaret Klinowska, a biologist who is now at the Department of
Clinical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge in
England, compiled the CITES volume on dolphins and other marine
   She says that the Indo-Pacific animals probably aren't
endangered, "but they're in a very vulnerable habitat."
   Cantonese Chinese don't eat dolphins, so at least in Hong Kong,
the humpbacks don't end up on someone's dinner plate. But farther
up the Chinese coast, in Fujian, researchers believe the same
species can be found in fish markets.
   Klinowska takes issue with what she considers overblown reports
of the status of Chinese white dolphins: "We need a lot more
information than what's been in the press, which is a big scream
about endangered species and so on. I think we can cry wolf too
   Pollution hasn't afflicted the Hong Kong dolphins overnight, she
says. "If they're still there, the presumption is that they can
take it."
   But Leatherwood questions how much the animals can take before
the local population becomes endangered. "I believe there must be
a threshold of noise, pollution and fish resources," he says,
"but we don't know what that threshold is."
   By 1996, at the conclusion of their study, Porter and her
colleagues hope to collect enough new information for the
government to develop an effective defense of the beleaguered Hong
Kong dolphins -- if it's not too late.