'Pink' dolphins in jeopardy from Hong Kong airport expansion & Macau bridge

Plans to expand Hong Kong's international airport and build a bridge to Macau could trigger disappearance of Chinese white dolphins – also called the pink dolphin because of its skin color – in surrounding water, conservationists have warned.

According to campaigners, the proposed construction of a third runway at Hong Kong's busy Chek Lap Kok airport could be lethal for the Chinese white dolphin, which draws thousands of tourists to the waters north of Hong Kong's Lantau island.

"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 AFP.

"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," said Hung, who has been going out to sea at least twice a week to monitor dolphin activity for nearly two decades.

According to the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, the number of white dolphins in Hong Kong waters dropped from 158 in 2003 to 61 in 2014. The dolphins have either gone to neighboring Chinese waters or may have died off, according to Hung.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that in recent years, the Chinese white dolphin has been facing a number of deadly threats, such as overfishing, water pollution and heavy marine traffic, along with coastal development. “These threats have had a major and cumulative impact on the population for years,” the WWF said in a statement.

It's believed that dolphin habitats have also been gravely affected by the ongoing construction of a 50-kilometre (30-mile) bridge connecting Hong Kong to the gambling hub of Macau. The bridge looms large behind the village Tai O, on the western tip of Lantau island, from where dolphin tours take place daily. Dolphin-watching reportedly accounts for 10 percent of Tai O's tourism business.

"Since the construction of the bridge in 2012 the situation has worsened," Hung pointed out.

Chinese white dolphins usually feed in shallow coastal areas up to a depth rarely exceeding 10 meters.

Large-scale reclamation for many past, current and future projects such as the Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge and the third airport runway is physically reducing the recognized dolphin important habitats, the WWF says.

“This adds a stress upon the dolphin population, forcing them to move farther away, possibly towards less suitable habitats. Habitat loss from rampant coastal development directly results in the loss and disturbance of the Chinese white dolphin’s breeding, nursery and foraging grounds.” 

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The threats have fallen on deaf ears, however, with the government arguing that potential impacts the proposed construction could have on the pink dolphins had been “properly assessed and addressed.”

“To compensate for the permanent loss of Chinese white dolphin habitats arising from the land formation works, the designation of a new marine park of approximately 2,400 ha (24 square kilometers) in the waters north of the third-runway project has been proposed," the statement from the agriculture, fisheries and conservation department said, according to AFP.

But campaigners slammed the plan, saying the marine park would not be established until at least 2023, when reclamation work for the third runway is expected to finish.
"We don't even know whether the dolphin can hang on and survive and wait," Hung said.