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Humpback whale. Image: Christopher Swann

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Risso's dolphin at surface

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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Risso's dolphin © Andy Knight

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Pilot whales pooing © Christopher Swann

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Fin whale (balaenoptera physalus) Three fin whales Gulf of California.

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A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

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Is this the final nail in the coffin?

If I were to ask you what you considered to be an iconic species of whale or dolphin what would your answer be? Much I’m sure would depend on where you live, what you’ve read and what your own experiences are. Some perhaps would say the mighty blue whale, the largest creature ever to have lived. Others might say the very vocal humpback whale, or how about the bottlenose dolphin, the dolphin with that iconic smile and that almost everyone knows by name? For me however, it’s the Chinese white dolphin who live in the ever-burgeoning waters of Hong Kong. In my opinion, they are possibly the most resilient and adaptable dolphin ever to have existed but for how much longer can they keep up the fight? In the face of pressure surely there has to be a point where they just cannot survive … sadly that day might be sooner than we thought.

 

Chinese white dolphins are otherwise known as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, a coastal and freshwater obligate (meaning that although they are marine, they rely on freshwater input to survive – hence they can’t just up sticks and leave, they’re tied to the river estuaries) and they are found from South Africa all the way to Australia. Historically scientists thought that they were all one species (and even one big population that inter-bred) but as with so many other species the truth is quite different and in fact the species has recently been split into four, with further sub-divisions of populations that remain geographically and genetically isolated from others of their ilk. The population found in the waters of the Pearl River Estuary (lying between Macau, China and Hong Kong), are one such group of isolated individuals. They are also unique in the fact that unlike their counterparts elsewhere, these dolphins are pink in colour … born grey, they slowly change colour and to this day, although there are some theories, no-one really knows why!

 

These poor little guys have to deal with more potential threats than any other coastal whale and dolphin anywhere in the world. In the past 15 years, their preferred habitat has been decimated with huge chunks of it reclaimed to make way for a new airport, a Disneyland theme park, deep-water container ports, bridges, contaminated mud pits … the list goes on. Hong Kong is also one of the busiest shipping ports in the world with hundreds of container ships passing through every day, not to mention the number of fast-ferries that traverse the waters backwards and forward to the outlying islands at all times of the day and night. Not only do the dolphins run the risk of vessel collision but they sometimes get entangled in fishing gear, more often than not with deadly consequences. And then there’s the pollution – possibly one of the most worrying threats to face these dolphins and a direct cause of high calf mortality – in some years NO calves survive due to the pollutant off-load they receive from their mother, who’s milk is full of toxins. How long can these dolphins fight against the tide of development? How long before they no longer grace the waters of Hong Kong with their presence?

The Airport Authority have followed process and undertaken an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the report of which is now open for public consultation. Unfortunately, when it comes to the impacts of this planned construction on the dolphins, we believe this report to be seriously flawed. We do not agree with the conclusions of the report, we do not believe that the proposed mitigation measures are adequate or even appropriate – one measure for example is to create a marine park for the dolphins. Nice idea right? Well, not if it’s not being created until 2023, AFTER the construction has been finished, and not if it’s in the wrong area, an area that has not been highlighted as important for the dolphins. The very siting of the runway would mean that two travelling corridors used by the dolphins on a daily basis would be affected, meaning that the dolphins would find it difficult, if not impossible to move between areas important for their survival. Although suggestions have been made to limit the noise pollution, to limit vessel traffic (at least the speed at which traffic will travel) and to keep other pollution to a minimum we still do not believe that enough is being done to protect these beleaguered and vulnerable dolphins.

WDC are joining many others in calling for a full and independent scientific review of the EIA (where it pertains to dolphins) and asking the Hong Kong authorities to reject the current proposal to build a third runway.

And here’s where you come in … If you want to help, please make your voice heard and join us in calling for a review of the existing data. It’s easy to do … you can go online and read the full EIA report here. Underneath you’ll see a box that says “send comment”. Alternatively, send an e-mail to [email protected] noting your disagreement with the report findings. Please be polite, state clearly your name and address, ask them to reject the report’s findings relevant to the dolphins and to undertake an independent scientific review of all available data on the population of Hong Kong Chinese white dolphin. Importantly, time is running out and the window of opportunity to submit comments closes on Saturday 19th July 2014 – so please, act now!

These iconic dolphins need us now more than ever …

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC