Hong Kong’s Pink Dolphins Could Be Wiped Out by an Airport and a Bridge

Construction projects, boat traffic, and pollution threaten the marine mammals.
A Chinese white dolphin or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, nicknamed the pink dolphin, swims in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. (Photo: Daniel Sorabji/Getty Images)
Dec 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Hong Kong’s rare pink-hued dolphins are in trouble thanks to the city’s plans for an expanded airport runway and a new bridge, conservationists warn.

Called Chinese white dolphins, the species is one of only two in the world that can carry a distinctive pink hue later in life. They were first identified more than 400 years ago swimming in the shallow waters of China’s Pearl River estuary. The population living north of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island has become a popular tourist attraction.

But years of overfishing, water pollution, and increased high-speed ferryboat traffic between the city and Macau have devastated pink dolphins in Hong Kong’s harbor area. Their numbers have declined from 158 observed in 2003 to around 60 today, according to a monitoring report by the Hong Kong Cetacean Research Project.

Now, conservationists fear the proposed construction of a third runway at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok international airport—a project that would remove 1,600 acres of seabed from dolphin habitat—could be the final nail in the coffin.

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“We think that if that project goes ahead, then it will probably drive the dolphin away from Hong Kong waters,” Samuel Hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, told Agence France Presse.

Hung, who has been going out to sea at least twice a week to monitor the dolphins for almost 20 years, added that the ongoing construction of the 31-mile Hong Kong–Macau bridge project, such as percussive pile-driving activity, has already forced dolphins from the region.

“In some ways it seems like we are pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the cliff, and if we’re making that final push, they will be gone forever,” Hung said. “I think now is the time to get our act together.”

In 2011, World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong included the runway expansion and bridge project in a map that identified more than 4,900 acres of dolphin habitat destroyed or altered in Hong Kong in the past 20 years from completed and proposed development.

(Photo: Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society/Facebook)

It also singled out high-speed ferries as a major threat to dolphins. Ferryboat traffic has increased 48 percent from 1999 to 2010, according to WWF. The danger was highlighted by CUHK rowing, a local college rowing team, which traversed the waters from Hong Kong to Macau last month to raise awareness of the pink dolphins’ plight.

“Crisscrossing the hectic estuary on small human-powered sculls, the rowers helped the public understand how dwarfed, vulnerable, and stressed Chinese white dolphins feel due to human activities,” Samantha Lee, WWF Hong Kong’s assistant conservation manager, said in a statement. “Every day the marine animals have to dodge high-speed ferries and construction barges, detour construction sites of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macao Bridge while putting up with noise and water pollution.”

To offset the habitat losses, Hong Kong government officials are planning to create a 5,900-acre marine park once the airport expansion is completed, with protections from fishing, boat traffic, and acoustic disruptions in southwest Lantau waters.

WWF says the marine park is a good start but might be too little, too late. The park wouldn’t be established until the airport expansion is completed, which could as late as 2023. And WWF officials believe the park would have to be expanded into a network of marine habitats to adequately protect the region’s remaining dolphins.

“We hope to create a win-win marine conservation network where Chinese white dolphins can enjoy an interconnected, safe, and disturbance-free sanctuary, while locals and fishermen can still satisfy their daily needs and find greater appreciation and responsibility toward the oceans,” Lee said.

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(Map: Courtesy WWF.org.hk)