Off Hong Kong’s Shores, Threatened Pink Dolphins Enjoy Brief Respite

HONG KONG — The hottest reward for mountain climbing to the highest of Fu Shan, a hill close to Hong Kong’s westernmost level, is a selfie backed by the setting solar, the gleaming new bridge throughout the Pearl River or a flight touchdown on the close by airport.

But for many who look extra carefully, there’s the prospect of a rarer prize: a glimpse of Chinese white dolphins swimming amongst fishing boats and cargo ships within the milky jade water.

“It’s amazing that Hong Kong still has this kind of rare animal,” mentioned Michelle Chan, as she watched from Fu Shan on a latest day.

On the water under, a half-dozen vacationer boats from the close by fishing village of Tai O surrounded a single white dolphin. People cheered because it breached.

The species, also called the pink dolphin for the flush coloration it will get whereas swimming actively in heat waters, is discovered by way of a lot of coastal south China and Southeast Asia. It has a particular place in Hong Kong, the place it seems in statues and faculty classes and was a mascot for the 1997 return of the previous British colony to Chinese management.

The marine mammals have maintained a precarious existence within the Pearl River Delta, which has the world’s second-highest quantity of freight shipments, a number of cities with populations within the hundreds of thousands and an unrelenting tempo of improvement in and alongside its waters.

But the variety of dolphins in Hong Kong have declined by as a lot as 80 % over the previous 15 years, in accordance with a report by 15 conservation groups and regional universities, as air pollution, marine site visitors and large-scale land reclamation initiatives have made the setting more and more hostile.

The development of a brand new runway for Hong Kong’s worldwide airport and a bridge that hyperlinks the town with the western aspect of the Pearl River has additionally disrupted areas that had been as soon as prime dolphin habitat however now hardly ever see the animals.

The coronavirus pandemic, nonetheless, has spurred some hope that the dolphins might discover respite. Regional journey restrictions led to the suspension of high-speed ferries that crossed the Pearl River Delta between Hong Kong and Macau, just a few occasions every hour, curbing one key risk to the animals.

“All vessel traffic is an issue, but high-speed ferries are a particular issue,” mentioned Laurence McCook, head of oceans conservation for the WWF-Hong Kong. “They move so fast there’s a risk of vessel strike, but they also just physically disturb the dolphins because the dolphins run away from them.”

With the ferry suspension, dolphins are getting a bit peace in one in all their most favored areas within the area.

“What we have documented fairly clearly is that dolphins are moving back out into the ferry zone,” Mr. McCook mentioned. “That actually is their most prime habitat under current circumstances.”

Still, the elevated visibility of the white dolphins in locations just like the waters off Fu Shan is most probably the results of them being freer to make use of elements of their most popular territory quite than an indication that their numbers are rebounding, researchers say.

“People want to hear this news about the benefit of the pandemic for wildlife, but it’s not true for dolphins,” mentioned Vincent Ho, the vice chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society.

Mr. Ho and a crew of researchers take common boat journeys backwards and forwards over a set grid to depend the variety of dolphins they spot.

Their route begins close to Hong Kong’s worldwide airport, which was as soon as a gathering spot for dolphins till landfill work startedfor the brand new bridge. The Hong Kong authorities established a marine park to compensate for the lack of habitat, however dolphins have been gradual to return, most probably as a result of work continues within the space on a brand new runway.

“Every time we have a project like the bridge,” Mr. Ho mentioned, “they set up a marine park as some kind of compensation. But we think it’s too late.”

On one latest survey journey, the primary dolphin the crew recognized was quantity WL79, which Mr. Ho shortly recognized by the V-shaped notch close to its tail, the results of getting tangled in a fishing line or internet.

“If we identify individuals, we can follow their life history — where they like to hang around, whether they have calves,” he mentioned. “This is important, because one of the worries is reproductive rate of dolphins is quite low. To keep the population healthy, we want to see calves. But that’s not happening in Hong Kong.”

Newborn dolphins are grey in shade and regularly lighten as they become old, their darker elements turning into distinct spots. Some change into fully unspotted. They stick with their moms for 3 to 4 years, however generally so long as eight or 9 years, and sometimes stay into their 30s.

Soon after the crew spots one other grownup, WL168, recognized by a big scar on its again. This one has additionally been seen close to Macau, one other Chinese territory 15 miles to the southwest, a sign of how native populations will not be sure by political boundaries.

The dolphins eat a wide range of fish, together with grey mullet and lion head fish, the identical kind of meals, notes Mr. Ho, that seems in markets round Hong Kong. The overfishing of such species provides to the threats to dolphins, as does air pollution from varied sources together with agricultural and industrial waste, city runoff, discharge from ships and marine plastics.

Researchers additionally fear that dolphin viewing boats additional stress the mammals, notably people who race out from Tai O for a 20-minute, $25 journey.

Conservations teams say they hope the advantages of the ferry suspension will encourage regional governments and ferry firms to rethink routes throughout the Pearl River. By touring considerably farther south, they might bypass key areas of dolphin habitat alongside Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island. Such a transfer would solely add a couple of minutes to the journey, they are saying.

It would, after all, ease simply one of many many threats the dolphins are going through.

“Rerouting the ferries is not a magic cure-all,” Mr. McCook mentioned. “But we think that can help us catalyze other actions and demonstrate it’s not a fait accompli that we lose the dolphins.”

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