Unique yet Vulnerable: Hong Kong’s Coral Reefs Need More Public Awareness

Skyscrapers and bustling streets filled with busy people define Hong Kong as one of Asia’s financial hubs. Zooming in, however, what is often overlooked by the masses is the city’s richness in nature, more specifically, its marine life, and as a result, the lack of protection and preservation for Hong Kong’s invaluable seascape. According to research conducted by the University of Hong Kong, around 6,000 marine species have been observed in Hong Kong, representing 25% of the total marine biodiversity in China. 

Image of Hong Kong’s coral reef. (Photo Credit: Eric Keung@114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey)

“Given that Hong Kong is just a spec on the coastline of China, it is an astounding statistic,” says multi-disciplinary ecologist Dr. David M. Baker at the University of Hong Kong, whose research focuses on the evolution and ecology of oceans, in an interview. He adds that such a statistic was based on diver surveys and scientific expeditions, relying heavily on the human eye. As the human eye cannot see things less than 2mm in size, Dr. Baker and his team at MarineGEO-Hong Kong have been working to identify “cryptic species,” species smaller than 2mm, to add to Hong Kong’s portfolio of marine life. So far, the project has revealed that Hong Kong has greater marine biodiversity than Indonesia, which is at the heart of the coral triangle, as well as the Red Sea. 

Dr. Baker emphasizes that the unique and diverse marine environment in Hong Kong can be attributed to three factors – the geographical location, the seasonality of Hong Kong, and pollution.  

Dr. David M. Baker studies the evolution and ecology of oceans. (Zoom Screenshot: Celine Ham)

Zooming in further into Hong Kong’s marine life, “there are over 90 species of hard coral in Hong Kong, indicating a greater diversity of hard coral than the Caribbean Sea,” says Dr. Jonathan Cybulski, a historical ecologist and science communicator whose research focuses on the story of Hong Kong and Panama’s pacific coral reefs. Coral reefs play an indispensable part in the underwater ecosystem in Hong Kong. They are home to many marine species, with more than a quarter of human seafood consumption coming from coral reefs, but their value extends beyond their functionality in the marine ecosystem. Well-preserved coral reefs offer coastal protection, creating resilience towards natural hazards, as they can minimize and slow down wave action. Furthermore, the coral from the reefs has great economic value with respect to tourism and biotechnology in that it can be used for heart medications and anti-inflammatory agents in cosmetic products.  

Hong Kong’s Vulnerable Reefs

Although Hong Kong can boast about its uniquely diverse marine biodiversity, there are just seven marine protected areas with only one fully protected marine reserve located in Cape D’Aguilar. The protected area makes up less than 5% of Hong Kong’s seascape compared to 38 % of the protected land area.

Marine Parks and Marine Reserve in Hong Kong

Dr. Jonathan Cybulski’s work shows that only 100 years ago Hong Kong had twice the amount of reef coverage and much more marine diversity. The decline is “human-driven,” says Dr. Cybulski. He identifies poor water quality as one of the largest stressors to Hong Kong’s reefs. “It’s water quality coming from the Pearl River, but also local water quality coming from untreated sewage and waste that’s really driving the modern-day composition, so it’s driving where corals can live,” explains Dr. Cybulski. 

Dr. Jonathan Cybulski explains his research about the changing marine environment in Hong Kong

Notably Hong Kong marine areas have been suffering from human activity since the early Qing Dynasty. Dr. Baker points out that one of the first industrial activities in Hong Kong was seabed mining. “People were burning the coral to create lime, which can be used for construction, agriculture, preservative for foods,” says Dr. Baker. “It was a high-value commodity.” In today’s China, corals have been replaced by limestone from Guangxi.

“We have a great diversity of marine life, but there is a low abundance of it,” explains Dr. Baker.

Overfishing is yet another serious threat to Hong Kong’s marine biodiversity. “We have a great diversity of marine life, but there is a low abundance of it,” explains Dr. Baker. “Fish play an important role in keeping the reef healthy and clean,” he adds. Hong Kong’s fishing regulation is not sufficient in protecting the areas rich in biodiversity. “There are no limits on the species of fish you can catch, the size of fish you can catch, the amount of fishing you can do,” says Andy Cornish, program leader of WWF’s global shark and ray conservation program. In addition, Hong Kong fisherpeople commonly use gill nets for fishing. “A lot of them get lost over time, but they still kill fish and crabs and other things that get stuck in them for a long time afterward,” explains Cornish.  

Finally, Hong Kong’s rapid economic development and urbanization endanger its coastal areas. Land reclamation is responsible for the loss of marine inshore habitat in Hong Kong. “We’ve lost those really shallow sheltered bays that are often nursery areas for anything from small fish and small stingrays, but even up to things like scalloped hammerhead sharks which we used to have in Hong Kong,” says Cornish. “I think that habitat is lost forever,” he adds.

Important Initiatives: Protecting Hong Kong Reefs

Although Hong Kong reefs are vulnerable, they can be conserved and many initiatives in Hong Kong have taken it upon themselves to protect and raise awareness about the marine areas. 

114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey 

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A slideshow of reef fish found in Hong Kong. (Photo Credit: Caron Wong@114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey) 

Reef fish are fish that dwell in proximity to coral communities. Founded in 2014, 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey is a nonprofit organization that conducts fish surveys to build a baseline data set of the reef fish in Hong Kong. The data set can be used not only as a benchmark to measure the changes occurring in Hong Kong’s waters and marine ecosystem but also as a means to raise public awareness. Stanley Shea, the Marine Program Director at 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish, says, “If we don’t know what reef fish we have, we cannot protect it.” 

Diver taking photos of a reef fish. (Photo Credit: Eric Keung@114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey)

A notable part of their work is the involvement of citizen scientists. With the mission to empower and mobilize citizen scientists, the Reef Fish Survey Team invites people, not limited to those with a background in marine biology, rather those of the public who are recreational divers, for fish identification training. The NGO believes that gathering people with diverse skill sets and day jobs can help organically spread awareness about reef fish. 

Currently, the 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey team has a 6-year data set and is committed to establishing a complete data set of reef fish in Hong Kong in the coming years.

Hong Kong Reef Check

Diver in front of a coral reef. (Photo Credit: Kathleen Ho@114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey)

Although Hong Kong’s marine life is facing a serious lack of protection, the Hong Kong government has been organizing efforts in order to improve the situation and Hong Kong Reef Check is one of many Hong Kong government initiatives. Organized by the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department in collaboration with the Reef Check Foundation, Hong Kong Reef Check monitors the status of corals since 2000. “Reef Check Foundation engages hundreds, if not thousands of local divers, diving enthusiasts, and researchers who undertake an annual survey of our local coral communities,” explains Dr. Baker. According to the 2021 Hong Kong Reef Check report, last year’s survey recorded corals in a generally healthy and stable condition with a high species.


Close up of a coral growing on archiREEF tile. (Photo Credit: Zhongyue Wan)

“archiREEF was born out of a real applied problem,” says Dr. Baker, who is the co-founder of the startup. The team behind archiREEF was initially contracted by Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department to assist the first active management of reefs in Hoi Ha Wan, where the government wanted the team to attempt to restore a species of coral that had been declining in population. By the time the team had received funding, however, the site in Hoi Ha Wan had lost all visible reef structures where corals could be attached to grow, making it impossible for the team to carry out coral restoration efforts. 

archiREEF tile installed on the seabed. (Photo Credit: Zhongyue Wan)

Amid challenges faced in the preliminary endeavor, the idea to tile the seabed with 3D printed tiles made of terra-cotta, a material used by marine scientists for more than 100 years, came about and materialized into a startup called archiREEF. Terra-cotta’s porous and fine texture, in conjunction with the neutral pH, provides a lot of attachment points for marine life, and after implementation, archiREEF found that their tiles enable the highest survival rate of marine life compared to any other practices undertaken for reef conservation. archiREEFs terra-cotta tiles are “simple yet very effective,” describes Dr. Baker. 

Hong Kong Reefs Need People’s Attention

Experts identify extending marine protected areas as the necessary next step to promote marine biodiversity conservation in Hong Kong. A marine protected area (MPA) is a zone designated and managed to protect marine habitats and species where human activities such as fishing are regulated, according to WWF Hong Kong. Current government efforts plan to designate only 5% of Hong Kong waters as marine protected areas by 2023. “We need to protect this, we need to enforce this, and we did not let people come here so that there’s a chance for the environment to either remain or to grow back,” says Dr. Cybulski. WWF Hong Kong along with other conservationists have been calling for 30% of Hong Kong’s waters to be designated as MPAs by 2030.

Hong Kong’s Underwater World. (Photo Credit: Eric Keung@114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey)

More positive changes are taking place in the near future. In May 2022, the commercial fishing ban will take effect in four marine parks – the Hoi Ha, Yan Chau Tong, Tung Ping Chau as well as The Brothers Marine Parks – according to the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department. “The government has stopped reissuing the fishing licenses to the commercial fishing permit holders and the last few will stop in May,” says Cornish. 

Public awareness of Hong Kong’s marine biodiversity and the need for its protection is the last element needed to support the battle for Hong Kong’s marine life. Only 4.3% of the respondents in Hong Kong said that they were quite well-informed or very well-informed about biodiversity, according to the survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and commissioned by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. “Most governments, including the Hong Kong government, tend not to prioritize issues until it seems like a significant chunk of the public cares about the issue too, particularly when it comes to the environment,” says Cornish.

“Humans are the cause but they are also the solution,” says Stanley Shea.

Hong Kongers have a variety of choices for action: lead a more sustainable lifestyle, volunteer in environmental NGOs,  participate in beach clean-ups, donate to conservation efforts, and more. “Humans are the cause but they are also the solution,” says Stanley Shea. 

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