Hong Kong’s Only Marine Reserve Under Strain of Unruly Visitors

The SCMP reported yesterday that a surge in visitor numbers to the ecologically sensitive Cape D’Aguilar and its marine reserve has disrupted the work of scientists, with people even collecting animals and fishing illegally.

Quoting Professor Gray Williams of the Swire Institute of Marine Science research facility (SWIMS) it reported that a surge of visitors in the past few years to Cape D’Aguilar at the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island has disrupted research and experiments and raised safety concerns.

Some of the damage caused was cited as treading on things, changing the water supply, pulling small seedlings out of their pods and not putting them back and so that they die and standing on animals and thereby killing them.

The researchers and students at the station also observed visitors collecting animals or fishing in the area, which is illegal as the area is a no-take marine reserve.

The research centre and nearby residences are private property but visitors have attempted to enter the buildings – some successfully – despite the “private property” signs . The centre has therefore put up barriers and installed locks, but people are still attempting to bypass them. Most visitors were generally “very reasonable” when confronted, but some refused to stop what they were doing and loud arguments with resulted, according to Williams.

Williams said he did not want to impose the “ultimate” solution of putting up a wall, because it would spoil the aesthetics of the place, but may have to consider it if the situation did not improve.

The area surrounding SWIMS at Cape d’Aguilar is a designated site of scientific interest by the government in 1991. SWIMS opened in November 1994 to conduct marine research in and around the marine reserve.

Around 2013 after a number of articles about Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse in local newspapers, researchers saw a marked increase in sightseers to the area . Unobscured by air and light pollution the area also saw many star-gazers who want to study a night sky . There are even websites arranging trips by tour groups, with some even listing the private research facility as a landmark to visit. All of this is putting increased pressure on the site’s ability to handle visitors.

Williams hoped that making people aware of the situation could help to minimise the impact their presence had on the area.
“Trying to go through education, to explain to people, that if you are to come down here then you need to be careful to make sure that [they] don’t disrupt the environment, because we can see that the environment has already been damaged by the number of people coming here,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department said its responsibility was to the marine reserve – the waters below the high tide mark – and not the coastal rocky area or other land areas in Cape D’Aguilar.

(My own commentary on this: Unlike the clear distinction of areas of responsibility in HK government departments, the marine habitats do not generally define so clearly. The cross-over from sea-to-land is not a distinct line but a continuum with dependencies on both sides. Many insects and land invertebrates will feed on marine detritus at low tide, many land plants disperse via the sea, and many marine animals depend on land-based organisms for food. It would be wise for government departments to recognize this and use a more inter-disciplinary approach to protect areas where two departments responsibilities meet instead of sticking to “their area”. The same incidentally applied to the air-pollution problem in HK, when the EPD was responsible for air pollution, but if you saw a ship bellowing out black smoke and reported it to the EPD, they could not do anything about it because that was the Marine Departments responsibility. However, I think this issue has since been addressed and there are inter-department groups now.


Sea Spiders, Chinese Takeaways and Taxonomical Humor

Sea spiders? Sounds like a B-movie horror story: ‘Sharkrantula”, maybe? Not at all. Sea spiders is the common name for pycnogonids (pik-noh-go-nids) which are a type of marine arthropod (joint-legged animal) which includes crustaceans like crabs, lobsters, shrimp and prawns, but also insects. But pycnos have actually got more in common with horseshoe crabs and spiders in terms of anatomy, so the name sea spiders is not too far from the truth.

Calipallenid pycnogonid via Flickr
Pycnogonid can be beautifully colorful

The occur in seas all over the world from tropical reefs to frozen polar seas and from shallow water to depths of over 7,000 m. Most are tiny although some deep-sea species can grow to 90 cm. Pycnogonids have extremely reduced bodies in which the abdomen has almost disappeared, while the legs are long and clawed. Muscles are in some cases reduced to a single cell! They can even breathe and absorb food through their skin. As you can imagine their dietary needs are therefore very small. And yet they are predators that prey on corals and worms. The head has a long proboscis with an unusual mouth at the end and several simple eyes on a tube-like stalk. The head also has a pair of claws and a pair of attachments on which the eggs can be carried. All in all, it can be very hard to tell just which end of a pycnogonid is the head!

You might think so what? Spiders are creepy and yucky and iffy. But marine biologists love pycnos – they are just so strange and fascinating biologically.

Two pycnos mating. You could be forgiven for thinking it was just one. Now tell me which end is the head???

But what has all this got to do with Chinese takeaways And taxonomical jokes?

Earlier this year I received the sad news that the head of the department I used to work in the Natural History Museum in London passed away. Roger Bamber (tribute by Dr. Tammy Horton) was a legend of a man and also an expert on pycnogonids – a pycnogonid taxonomist. Unlike the more familiar taxidermist (who stuffs and preserves dead animals), a taxonomist is an expert on the certain groups of animals or plants and decides what is and is not a new species – but come to think of it and they also work with dead animals and need to preserve them…sometimes they stuff them too…but its much more complex and tricky, I promise. There is a difference honestly!

Anyway, one of Hong Kong’s pycnos (there at least 6 species locally) was discovered by Roger. Tanystylum sinoabductus was identified in Hong Kong’s only marine reserve at Cape D’Aguilar where the Swire Institute of Marine Science is located. (Note: a marine reserve, unlike a marine park, does not allow any sort of anchorage or fishing, so its is completely protected – except for water pollution of course.) This particular pycno was found in exposed mussel beds. But at only roughly 1/2 a mm in size you will only see it with a magnifying glass and only recognize it under a microscope.

And now the for long awaited joke: the species is part of the genus Tanystylum, but the specific (species) name that Roger chose – sinoabductus -is the taxonomical joke. Sino in latin means chinese (duh!), and abductus – if you have not already guessed it – means ‘taken away’, thus sinoabductus is the “Chinese takeaway’. OMG, I hear you say. What an unfunny joke! You have to understand there is not much opportunity for humor in science (except in the pub after the work) and marine biologists spend a long time in the lab staring down a microscope or hours pouring data on a computer and reading and writing scientific papers any chance to get away with even a bit of humor is appreciated!

A typical chinese takeaway restaurant in the UK – and also the inspiration for the name of a pycnogonid sea spider…taxonomical humor.

And just in case anybody in this era of social justice warriors and political correctness thinks that this species name could be racist: the other reason for the name is that the type species – that is the 1 animal that was selected as typical of the species and which represents the ‘gold standard’ for that species – now resides in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, UK. Thus this Chinese sea spider species was in fact ‘taken away’ to a noted museum for that group of animal (which is standard practice as well, so no accusations of kidnapping or robbery please!).

Never ask a pycnogonid taxonomist for a Chinese takeaway. Bon appetite!

HKD 4.3M Grants Won for Tolo Harbor (吐露港) Biodiversity & Ecology Research

More than 25 local marine biologists have been awarded a grant that will enable them to study the marine biodiversity and ecology of the Tolo Harbour and channel.

Tolo Harbor is a semi-enclosed body of water in the northeast of Hong Kong linked to the sea only by the narrow Tolo Channel. The Tolo Channel and Harbor were infamous in the 1980’s for terrible water pollution, fould smells and red tides. A rapid expansion of urban areas on the firnge of Tolo Harbor with direct, untreated sewage discharges into the Harbor caused large scale eutrophication. The sewage outfalls provided nutrients feeding massive algal blooms which subsequently died and their decomposition by microorganisms used up so much oxygen that the water and sediment became anoxic, killing fish and many other marine organism (again feeding oxygen demand form decomposition) and causing foul smelling water. The problem was made much worse because Tolo Harbor is not very well flushed with new oxygenated water from the sea. It was eventually improved by providing proper modern sewage treatment and recognizing the particular vulnerablility of the area to eutrophication.

The HK$4.3 million will benefit the Joint University Consortium for Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation of Marine Ecosystems and comes via the Environment and Conservation Fund (ECF). The ECF was established by the government in 1994 as part of its long-term commitment to environmental protection and conservation and received an injection of $5 billion in 2013, to serve as seed money generating an annual investment returns to support green projects and activities. The ECF has so far funded over 4,290 educational, research, and other projects and activities in relation to environmental and conservation matters.

Despite the funding being delayed for about two years, the proposal was approved last month and the 18-month project will commence later this year. The first stage of the two-phase study is aimed at finding the current ecological status of the area as well as the economic value of marine resources. The team will establish a comprehensive species database of the area. Kevin Ho King-yan, a senior research assistant at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, said the proposal was aired at least two rounds of interviews, possibly because of the large amount of money required.

“Usually, project funding proposals to the conservation fund average around the hundred thousand mark, but this time it is in the millions,” he said. The announcement comes after an international conference, jointly organized by the Swire Institute of Marine Science and the University of Hong Kong School of Biological Sciences, kicked off at HKU yesterday.

More than 280 participants from 26 countries have come together for the four-day conference to discuss issues such as coastal development and marine conservation. More than 20 marine scientists from overseas and the mainland are attending. Organizing committee chairman Kenneth Leung Mei-yee said experts from across the globe need to work together to map out a plan to protect marine biodiversity. “We need experts from all different sectors to join hands together to uncover what we have and how we can protect them and how we can make sustainable use of these resources,” Leung said.

Note: The Hoi Ha Wan marine park – noted for its corals – is located at the seaward mouth of the Tolo Channel.

Source: The Standard 2nd June 2015