The Starfish of Hong Kong, Part 5

Pentaceraster chinensis (no English common name)

Pentaceraster regulus – a relative of P. chinensis. Image by Bernard Dupont cc-by-4.0

A tropical starfish know from several locations including Hainan.

Luzon Sea Star (Echinaster luzonicus)

Echinaster luzonicus from Pulau Tioman (Malaysia)
Author Ron Yeo, cc-by-nc-sa.

The Luzon sea star is prone to shed its arms, which then regenerate into new individuals. It is normally six-armed but often quite asymmetrical in appearance, because of it has a habit of shedding arms. Its colouring ranges from red to dark brown. It is found in the tropical and sub-tropical western Indo-Pacific region, ranging from Madagascar and the east coast of Africa to Northern Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It is found on both reef crests and in the intertidal zone where it feeds on bacterial and algal films that it extracts from the sediment. By shedding its arms for regeneration the species can reproduce asexually. The shed arm regenerates, growing a new disc and further arms.  Up to 65 cm in diameter.

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The Starfish of Hong Kong, Part 2

Blue Linckia (Linckia laevigata)

Blue Linckia via WikiCommons cc-by-sa 3.0

Ranges in color morphs from dark or light blue, but also observed as aqua, purple, or even orange variations throughout the ocean. Grows up to 30 cm in diameter and has rounded arm tips. Some individuals can have lighter or darker spots along their arms. They are typically firm in texture and have slightly tubular arms with short, yellowish tube feet on the underside. It inhabits coral reefs and sea grass beds. They occur subtidally, sometimes intertidally, on fine sand or hard surfaces and move quite slowly .

Cushioning Star (Culcita nouvaeguineae)

via WikiCommons (Shizhao, cc-by-sa-2.5)

The cushion star has very short arms and an inflated appearance, resembling a pentagonal pincushion. Its colour is variable and it occurs in tropical warm waters in the Indo-Pacific. It ranges from Madagascar and the Seychelles to the Philippines, New Guinea, Australia and Hawaii.  It feeds on detritus and small invertebrates, including stony corals.

Vietnam Also Guilty of Destroying Reefs in S. China Sea

It is not just China destroying reefs in the South China Sea by reclaiming land to form island outposts to boost territorial claims. Vietnam is also reclaiming land by dumping enormous amounts of sand on two reefs destroying coral communities and changing the local ecology and likely adversely affecting fish stocks.

The photographs, shared with Reuters by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), show an expansion of the land area of Vietnamese-controlled Sand Cay and West London Reef in the Spratly archipelego and the addition of buildings.

 

Sandy Cay (largest islet in the image) is small islet in the South China Sea occupied by Vietnam. it is visited by seabirds and was home to a rich marine diversity.
 

The director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (http://amti.csis.org/), said the work included military installations and appeared to have started before China began a flurry of reclamation projects last year. “On one site, it has constructed a significant new area that was formerly under water and at another it has used land reclamation to add acreage to an existing island,” Rapp-Hooper said.

The images showed that Vietnam had reclaimed about 65,000 square meters (699,654 square feet) of land at West London Reef and 21,000 square meters (226,042 square feet) at Sand Cay. This compared to 900,000 square meters (9.6 million square feet) reclaimed by China at a single reef, Fiery Cross.
 
Satellite images show that since about March 2014, China had conducted reclamation work at seven sites in the Spratlys and was constructing a military-sized air strip on one artificial island and possibly a second on another.

It appears that claimants to the South China Sea have entered into a land building race that destroys ecology and depletes fish stocks as a result. There can be no real winners in such a race – everybody will lose.

International Ban on Toxic Ship Paint (TBT) Likely to Be (Finally) Fully Implemented in HK Soon

On the 21st of April a committee meeting was held in Legco (HK law making body) to discuss a new regulation on harmful anti-fouling systems. The legislation seeks to ban the use of organotin such as tributylin (TBT) compounds in paints used on ships which kill any organisms trying to colonize the hulls such as barnacles, worm, mussels, algae and others. Despite a lot of petty squabbling (and personal digs at the previous colonial administrations) it looks hopeful that regulation may eventually make it to a 2nd and 3rd reading in Legco and pass into law.

Tributylin (TBT) is a chemical that was used extensively in anti-fouling paints (bottom paints) on ships to improve efficiency by preventing invertebrates and plants clinging to the hulls. TBT is the most successful anti-fouling agent ever invented and was relatively cheap. It was used extensively for 40 years. But TBT slowly leaches out into the marine environment where it is highly toxic to a wide range of organisms beyond the organisms that it was intended to kill. By poisoning barnacles, algae, and other organisms at the bottom of the food chain, TBT levels are concentrated (biomagnified) up the marine food web and even up to us humans. It also causes developmental problems in marine organisms. One of the most studied organisms are marine snails, such as the Dog whelk (Nucella lapillus) in Europe and America.  TBT leads a condition termed ‘imposex’ where female snails are ‘masculinized’ and grow penises.  Since fewer fertile females are then available for mating, the population begins to decline, which disturbs the balance of the ecosystem.

Large ocean going vessels frequently used anti-fouling bottom paints containing TBT to keep barnacles and other adhesive animals off the hulls to lower resistance and save fuel. (via WikiCommons)
Large ocean-going vessels frequently used anti-fouling bottom paints containing TBT to keep barnacles and other adhesive animals off the hulls to lower resistance and save fuel. (via WikiCommons)

Vertebrates such as fish and mammals can become affected by TBT through contact with waters contaminated with TBT and by eating already poisoned seafood.  The Japanese rice fish (Oryzias latipes), has been used as a model to test the effects of TBT at different developmental stages of the embryo. Scientists found that as TBT concentration increased the developmental rate decreased and that tail abnormalities occurred as a result. Studies have shown that TBT is harmful to the immune system. Research also shows that TBT reduces resistance to infection in fish which live on the seabed and experience high levels of TBT. These areas tend to have silty sediment like harbours and estuaries (like Hong Kong). Mammals, exposed to TBT through their diet, also suffer. TBT can lead to immunosuppression in sea-otters and dolphins. High levels of TBT were found in the livers of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) and stranded bottlenose dolphins. TBT has also been blamed by hearing experts for causing hearing loss in mammalian top predators such as whales. Because hearing is important for mating and predation in these animals, long-term consequences could be drastic.

Bottlenose dolphins are affected (via WikiCommons)
Bottlenose dolphins sometimes have high levels of TBT in their livers (via WikiCommons)

How TBT can move up the food chain was shown by one study that found most samples of skipjack tuna tested positive for TBT. Tuna from waters around developing Asian nations had particularly high levels of TBT most likely because the regulation of TBT is not as well enforced in Asia as it is in Europe or the US.

Skipjack Tuna sushi - can contain levels of TBT (via WikiCommons)
Skipjack Tuna sushi – can contain levels of TBT (via WikiCommons)

In addition TBT last for a long time in the marine environment. Its half-life in the marine environment is around 25 years. TBT sticks to seabed sediments. But that process is reversible and depends on the pH of the seawater. Studies have shown that 95% of TBT can be released from the sediments back into the aquatic environment. This release makes it difficult to quantify the amount of TBT in an environment, since its concentration in the water is not representative of its availability.

TBT Pollution in Hong Kong

In 1995 a study showed that 3 of the 4 species examined had sign of distorted sex organ development (imposex) and the authors inferred TBT as the cause. Another study in 2000 of 24 species found 5 species with imposex. Again the author inferred TBT as cause. In 2001 a study found the concentration required to cause imposex for one local species was as low as 0.000001 grams per liter.

Like these European dogwhelk snails,  several species of local marine snails have been shown to have suffered TBT-induced maldevelopment of sex organs. (via WikiCommons)
Like these European dogwhelk snails, several species of local marine snails have been shown to have suffered TBT-induced maldevelopment of sex organs. (via WikiCommons)

In the 2004-2012 monitoring, TBT was generally not detected in marine water, river water, sewage effluent or storm water runoff samples by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD). According to the EPD the levels of TBT in Hong Kong marine sediments mostly met Australia‘s sediment quality guideline for the protection of benthic organisms and were generally within the range (falling on the low-side) reported in other Asian countries, such as Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia. The levels of TBT in the biota species were low and largely comparable with the levels for biota in the Pearl River Estuary area.

The Actions of the Hong Kong  Government

The production, import and export of TBT paints was already banned in HK. In 1990, the Marine Environment Protection Committee recommended that the Government eliminate the use of TBT-containing antifouling paints on smaller vessels. This was intended to be a temporary restriction until the International Maritime Organization could implement a complete ban of TBT anti-fouling agents for ships, which it did in 2001. The use of TBT in antifouling paint was banned (deregistered) in Hong Kong in 1992.  But this new HK regulation seeks to now fully implement the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships from 2001 which includes certification requirement for large ships in Hong Kong waters and also extends to Hong Kong registered ships anywhere in the world.

The LEGCO (legislative council) conmplex in Central where the new regulation is being discussed. (via WikiCommons)
The LEGCO (legislative council) conmplex in Central where the new regulation is being discussed. (via WikiCommons)

The Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships came about in 2001. Mainland China implemented this Convention in 2011, but Hong Kong (as a major port city) is only now discussing this.

Despite the international bans, TBT will most likely be present in the water column and sediment for up to twenty years because of its long half-life.

Violations of the Ban 

Even though its banned by some international agencies, TBT anti-fouling paints are still being used in some countries with poor regulation enforcement, such as countries in the Caribbean.


Note: the new subsidiary legislation (title: Merchant Shipping (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Ordinance (Cap. 413) Merchant Shipping (Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships) Regulation) was published in the Gazette on the 20th of March 2015, introduced into the Legislative Council on 25 March 2015. It was refered for discussion to the subcommittee on Merchant Shipping on the 10th of April 2015. In their report published on the 6th of May 2015 the subcommittee supported the subsidiary legislation. Having cleared the first hurdle.

Consupmtion of Shark’s Fin in Hong Kong Dropping

According to a new survey by the Social Sciences Research Centre of the University of Hong Kong, in the past five years, close tp 70% of residents have reduced or stopped eating shark’s fin soup. The 1,000 people surveyed found that 92% of respondants found it acceptable to remove shark fin soup from a wedding banquet menu, versus 80% in 2009.

  • use of shark’s fin at wedding banquets fell from 91% in 2009 to 72% in 2014
  • consumption of shark’s fin during Chinese New Year went from 38% in 2009 to 14% in 2014.
  • many said they are willing to try alternatives
  • less than 1% saw shark fin as irreplaceable at banquets
  • 24% of respondents said they did not eat shark fin at all in 2014 compared with 15% in 2009
  • 44% had not eaten it at a restaurant for a year against 17.5% earlier
  • Environmental concern was cited as the main reason why people shunned shark’s fin

Stanley Shea Kwok-ho program coordinator at Bloom Marine (the organisation funnding the survey) said people are more aware of the environmental impact of eating shark fin, and many hotels, restaurants and catering firms have helped in the fight for conservation by striking it off their menus. And many are offering alternatives to shark fin soup.

Imogen Zethoven, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Shark Conservation Campaign, said she is delighted to see local support for protecting sharks growing when “we know about 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries.”

While praising the government for taking a lead in banning shark fin and bluefin tuna from official banquets in 2013, Shea said it should also discourage the consumption of all products involving endangered species.

Related to that, 84% of respondents said the government could do more to protect sharks through education and 69% that sustainable seafood should be promoted.

Hong Kong still handles about 50% of the global trade in shark fins.

(Source: HK Standard, April 17, 2015)

Pristine Coral Reefs Destroyed by ‘Great Wall of Sand’

China is creating a ‘great wall of sand’ in the South China Sea, according to the Daily Mail.

The latest huge land mass is four square kilometres in size and was created by dumping sand on live coral reefs, damaging local ecosystems.

But this is just one of several artificial islands China has been creating in the region – and the exact purpose of them is unknown.  

 

 

The large expanses of sand and concrete – the latest being Johnson Reef – are being built among the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

China is creating the area by using dredging vessels to dig up sediment from the sea, and then dumping it on subermeged coral reefs to make islands.

China has supposedly been carrying out the land reclamation in order to build airstrips and other structures in the region.

  

Five islands in total have been built in this way, and two more are in development. 

Richard Dodge of the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center, said: ‘The activities described would appear to clearly both be greatly exceeding corals and coral reefs’ ability to cope and survive the excess sediments and turbidity.’

He said that as the reefs were being covered by cement and landfill, this constituted ‘outright destruction’ of the buried coral reefs and associated habitats. 

‘Coral reefs are extremely globally and locally valuable both for the biodiversity and ecosystem they create but also for the tremendous services they provide in terms of food supply, cultural heritage, erosion prevention, recreation, tourism, and habitat for myriad other organisms,’ he continued.

‘Coral reefs worldwide are under extreme threat from changing climate and from local sources of land based pollution, over fishing, and coastal construction.

‘The activities described would appear to represent an additional and severe threat to coral reef ecosystem health and sustainability.’

  

Robert Nicholls, a Professor of Coastal Engineering at the University of Southampton, added: ‘It is clearly destroying [coral reefs] at the local scale of the land claim and the environment.

‘In the bigger scheme of things it is harder to be precise as these are small areas in a large area of reef.’

China is creating land by pumping sand on to live coral reefs – some of them submerged – and paving over them with concrete. It has now created over 4 square kilometers of artificial landmass.

The region is known for its beautiful natural islands, but ‘in sharp contrast, these actions are are creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months.

The Macau Whale Stranding Febuary 3rd, 1933

Sometimes it is very amusing and interesting to realize how different we see the environment now in 2015 compared to our attitudes the last century. A case in point is this gem of a news article from 1933 about a 25-foot (7.6 m) whale that stranded in Macau. Today, we would go to extraordinary efforts and spare no cost to rescue the whale and help it out to sea. Back in 1933 attitudes were a bit different, however…

“Much excitement was created in the little fishing hamlet of Tsam Mang Chin, not far from the Macao Barrier Gate, when a whale, 25 feet long, drifted ashore and was left high and dry on the beach when the tide went out.
The villagers were all activity, when the monster was sighted, and measures were promptly taken to prevent its escape. The whale was soon dragged higher up the beach, where it was killed, and operations to convert the oil and remains into cash were immediately carried out.

All day long, villagers from the surrounding country trooped into the hamlet to buy the whale oil and the flesh until nothing was left of the monster excepting the bones.

A fee was later charged for viewing the skeleton.

Some idea of the size of the whale may be gathered from the fact that a thousand catties [500 kg] of oil and twice the amount of flesh were sold by the captors.”

(Hong Kong Telegraph February 3rd, 1933)

These days, however, a “big whale” in Macau refers to big-ticket casino gamblers from mainland China. But with the anti-corruption campaign ongoing in China, the new “big whales” seem to be facing the same sort of steep decline that the real whales faced in the 20th century!