Feature Story: Chinese White Dolphins Crisis: 6 Things you need to Know about the “Ecological Island”

This feature story was published in Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society eNewsletter 2024 vol. 1.

Do you know about Macau’s “Ecological Island” project, a 200-hectare land reclamation plan? The footprint of the “Ecological Island” is located in a critical area that will impact the survival of the entire population of white dolphins in the Pearl River Estuary (PRE). This land reclamation project is actually unnecessary, as Macau only needs a screening facility for construction waste that meets mainland requirements. The delay cannot continue any longer. We have to protect the Chinese white dolphins. Let’s go through the short video and the following article to learn more about it.

Video (2’18”): How the “Ecological Island” reclamation project in Macau will affect the important habitat of Chinese white dolphins. (in Chinese only)

1. The Ecological Island is located next to the controversial and unapproved Hengqin land reclamation project.

In last month’s public consultation on Macau’s “Maritime Spatial Planning” (MSP), the government announced the “Ecological Island” artificial island reclamation plan, which is large in scale and located next to the previously controversial and unapproved Hengqin land reclamation project.

(Source: Zhuhai Chimelong Fuxing Island land reclamation project EIA report)

The 35-hectare Phase II Chimelong Fuxing Island land reclamation project in Zhuhai was previously planned to be located in the waters southeast of Hengqin, and was criticized by civil society organizations such as the China Cetacean Alliance, the Cross-border Environmental Concern Association, and the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation during 2017: the artificial island project would destroy the important habitat of the Chinese white dolphins in the PRE and the nursery area for juvenile fish and shrimp, and would also affect the important communication channel between the Lingding Yang and Modaomen groups. Fortunately, the environmental impact assessment was later rejected, and the white dolphins were temporarily saved.

(The “Ecological Island” is a shade of orange, Source: Macau “Marine Functional Zoning” and “Marine Spatial Planning”)
(Source: Environmental Protection Bureau website)

But now, Macau plans to build a land reclamation project only 1.5 kilometers away, with an area five times larger at 200 hectares. The Ecological Island is located in the waters south of Coloane, about 1 kilometer from Macau’s Hac Sa Beach and the white dolphin hotspot Long Chao Kok. The purpose of the land reclamation is to dispose of construction waste, and the landfill project will last for 23 years. The government has also revealed that it will gradually dump more toxic fly ash and other waste in the surrounding waters. This project is misleadingly named the “Ecological Island” because the government claims that the artificial island will be developed into a coastal recreation area, an environmental protection and disaster prevention science popularization base. But this large-scale land reclamation project is actually an “Ecosystem Destroyer Island”. It will not only drive the dolphins using Macau waters away, but also seriously threaten the Chinese white dolphin population in the neighboring waters of the PRE. The Chinese white dolphins of the PRE are about to be lost!

2. The reclamation site is the main traveling corridor and important habitat of the white dolphins in the Pearl River Estuary.

The Ecological Island and the Hengqin land reclamation site are both located in the white dolphin traveling corridor, which is the necessary route for the white dolphin population in the PRE to shuttle between the eastern and narrow western habitats, and between the western PRE and the Modaomen Estuary – precisely the nearshore waters from the southern Macau to Powei of Hengqin.

(Source: Guo L. et al., 2022 doi: 10.3389/fmars.2022.1048959)

According to the compilation of four previously published reports on the white dolphins in the Pearl River Estuary and Macau by the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS), since 2015, white dolphin sightings have been distributed in more than half of the 85 km2 of waters managed by Macau. The white dolphins mainly forage at the southwest of the airport runway, and quickly travel along the shores of Hac Sa Beach and Long Chao Kok, with HKDCS and the Macau ecological surveyor even sighting white dolphins swimming within 10 meters of the shore at Long Chao Kok.

(Source: Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society)

The Ecological Island is located in the center of the white dolphin traveling corridor, which will block the movement and communication of the white dolphin population in the PRE, seriously affecting their foraging, breeding and nursing. There is a risk of the Pearl River Estuary population and their habitat being fragmented, greatly increasing the risk of white dolphin extinction and damaging biodiversity.

3. The presence of dolphins in Macau waters was concealed in the public consultation and the government has not planned any ecological red lines or protected areas for them.

In the MSP consultation documents, the only marine ecology mentioned are the black-faced spoonbill and mangroves, for which natural protected areas have been designated at western Macau. However, the documents do not contain any information about the presence of white dolphins in Macau waters, nor any planning for related protected areas. There is only one sentence mentioning white dolphins – “to establish a white dolphin information reporting mechanism with Guangdong Province and jointly conserve the white dolphin ecosystem in the Greater Bay Area” – which is similar to the content of the government’s past press releases when stranded dolphin carcasses were found – “reporting the dolphin stranding cases to the relevant units in Guangdong Province to strengthen information sharing in the surrounding areas”.

The Macau Municipal Affairs Bureau has commissioned Sun Yat-sen University to investigate the Chinese white dolphins in Macau waters, but the government has refused to release the investigation report. Besides, this planning consultation has omitted the most basic information and conservation plan for white dolphins, becoming a “conservation black hole” for the Chinese white dolphins in the PRE.

(Source: “Action Plan for the Conservation of Chinese White Dolphins (2017-2026)”)

The MSP covers a planning period of 16 years till 2040. The marine protected areas for waterbirds and beaches only account for about 3% of Macau waters, which is far behind the pace of mainland China and international standards – mainland China requires coastal cities to designate 30% of their waters as ecological red lines, the “Convention on Biological Diversity” applicable to Macau requires 30% of waters to be protected by 2030, and the “Action Plan for the Conservation of Chinese White Dolphins (2017-2026)” aims to establish protected areas for 90% of the main habitats of white dolphins in western Guangdong by 2026. The ocean is interconnected, and white dolphins are marine animals that need to move across large areas, so MSP needs to be coherent. Although the consultation document states that Macau should formulate its “Marine Functional Zoning” and “Marine Spatial Planning” within the framework of the “National Marine Functional Zoning” and in line with the overall national marine planning, Macau’s actual planning is clearly lagging behind China’s environmental protection policies and cannot effectively protect Macau waters and biodiversity.

4. Current officials do not attach importance to or understand the protection of white dolphins and their habitats, and there is no department specifically responsible for the protection of marine ecology.

During the Macau consultation, citizens and environmental groups in Hong Kong and Macau have reflected to the government the need to actively protect the planning for Chinese white dolphins, opposed the location of the Ecological Island in the important traveling habitat of white dolphins, and inquired about the progress of the government’s planned regional cooperation to “recycle and reuse” construction waste.

However, the responses from the maritime and environmental protection departments have highlighted their insufficient emphasis on white dolphin conservation, lack of understanding of white dolphin ecology and the importance of Macau waters to the white dolphins in the PRE, and their shirking of responsibility for protecting white dolphins. The officials’ responses include:

  1. Designating a dolphin protected area would seriously hinder Macau’s diversified development;
  2. Macau waters was too small for designating marine protected area;
  3. Considering upgrading the “undefined area” to a protected area only when conditions allow in the future;
  4. The Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) said the white dolphins mainly habited in the large protected area in the PRE which is over 400 km2 and 8 km away from the site, and the Chief Executive said he was not worried about white dolphins leaving Macau waters because there are many white dolphins in other areas;
  5. The EPB said according to the airport expansion’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, white dolphins in Macau were only concentrated in the southern end of the runway (note: but they approved the EIA report for the land reclamation there), not the construction’s footprint;
  6. The EPB’s new promotional webpage for the Ecological Island established after the public consultation ended, stating that the reclamation footprint only accounted for 0.2% of the range of dolphin in PRE (note: the diagram and figures are not supported by data);
  7. The location of the Ecological Island was confirmed based on considerations of hydrology, currents, and maritime traffic, and was the most feasible (note: no public information supports this); the EIA required by Macau’s laws was not yet complete but it could ensure ecological impact mitigation and handle situations with white dolphins during the construction period;
  8. The Chief Executive said there were no other ways to dispose of construction waste and Guangdong Taishan did not accept Macau’s waste for use in their land reclamation projects. The Ecological Island plan had been reviewed and approved by some relevant mainland government departments and experts, and would be submitted to the central government for approval this year.

Any irreversible environmental damage options should be considered as a last resort, but the Macau government has not disclosed the feasibility study details of alternative sites, nor the timetable for implementing “cross-regional recycle and reuse of construction waste”, only guiding citizens to view land reclamation as the only method and attempting to rationalize its necessity.

Macau government officials not only have a weak awareness of marine protection, but have also proposed outdated and ineffective planning ideas such as “first reclaim land for development, then compensate for conservation”, shifting the responsibility for protecting dolphins entirely to the EIA system that is powerless against land reclamation destruction. Additionally, in the government structure, there is no specific government department responsible for the protection of marine ecology and white dolphins. The Nature Conservation Division of the Municipal Affairs Bureau only manages and protects nature reserves, mangroves, forests and wetlands while the cross-departmental Maritime Management and Development Coordination Committee responsible for formulating marine spatial planning does not include any Municipal Affairs Bureau officials who have conducted dolphin monitoring. Given that the Chinese white dolphins in the eastern and western Pearl River Estuary both frequently use Macau waters, this management vacuum is very detrimental to the conservation of the white dolphin population in the PRE.

(Source: left – Macau regulation 25/2018 – Operation of The Nature Conservation Division of the Municipal Affairs Bureau, right – Maritime Management and Development Coordination Committee)

5. Macau government has delayed for 10 years without building a construction waste screening facility to achieve cross-regional resource utilization, and the urgently needed space is not the Ecological Island.

Macau’s only construction waste landfill has been in use since 2006, and the waste has been piling up after reaching full capacity in 2013. In 2012, Macau had not yet obtained the use of sea areas from the central government, and at that time the government and society had a consensus on two main long-term solutions: waste reduction and regional cooperation to recycle and reuse construction waste. In 2013, Guangdong and Macau signed the “Guangdong-Macau Environmental Protection Cooperation Framework Agreement” on this. In 2014, the Macau government said the inert construction waste screening facility would be built within one or two years to facilitate cross-regional utilization, then in 2016 said it would be operational by 2019, but the construction has been delayed for over 10 years, not even started and there is still no completion schedule.

(Source: 1. Reply no. 675/V/2014 from Environmental Protection Bureau to Legislative Councilor, 2. Environmental Protection Bureau website, 3. “Macau solid waste resource management plan (2017-2026)”)

In recent years, measures have been taken to release the saturated landfill space, such as implementing a construction waste charging system, screening some construction waste for use in other Macau land reclamation projects, and dumping dredged mud at offshore temporary dumping sites. Anyway, basically Macau is still using simple and unsustainable ways to handle construction waste, landfilling and dumping. However, after Macau officially managed 85 km2 of waters in 2015, when the public urged the implementation of cross-regional screening facilities to recycle waste, the EPB began to propose marine dumping methods instead.

In contrast, the neighbor city Zhuhai has been implementing the “Zero Waste City” plan in recent years, with a series of plans and supporting facilities for the resource utilization of inert construction waste, fly ash, dredged mud and other materials. One of the six planned facilities in the Jinwan District has been operating since last year, where waste concrete and asphalt can be processed into recycled aggregates, cement, concrete and other building materials. As long as Macau builds a cross-regional screening facility to screen waste that meets mainland requirements, it can be transported to the mainland and “turned waste into treasure”.

(Source: Environmental Protection Bureau website)

The EPB’s website currently states that the cross-regional screening facility project has been shelved due to insufficient space within the landfill area, that is why they urgently need the new offshore landfill, the Ecological Island. However, the Macau government has not told the public that the most urgent space needed is not the Ecological Island, but only a construction waste screening facility that meets the requirements of the mainland. Macau has not disclosed the size of this facility, but it is believed to be less than one-tenth the size of the Ecological Island, greatly reducing the pressure on land reclamation and land use, without the need to destroy the habitat of the Chinese white dolphin, which is also a long-term plan for waste recycling.

6. Macau lacks a policy-level environmental impact assessment, and the Chinese white dolphin needs more attention and protection of their habitat.

The Macau EPB is currently conducting an “project-level EIA” on the selected site for the Ecological Island, and plans to formally submit it to the central government for approval within this year, which is a typical “decision first, assessment later” process. Even though mainland China and other regions are promoting “policy-level EIA” – to propose more scientific and environmentally-friendly policy options before finalizing project details, Macau’s EIA system is relatively backward and lacks such policy-level EIA requirements. The Macau government’s approach would not maximize the prevention of ecological disasters, and the subsequent impacts will be difficult to be compensated.

This large-scale land reclamation project Ecological Island will not only affect the ecology of Macau waters, people living outside Macau should know the possible consequences too. During the public consultation period at Macau, more than 1,600 Macau residents signed an online petition opposing land reclamation in southern Macau and requesting it to be designated as a protected area, but the Macau government remains unmoved. Please speak up for the Chinese white dolphin, pay attention to Macau’s marine spatial planning, stop the Ecological Island project, and together protect the habitat of the Chinese white dolphins in the PRE.

Reference:

Guo L et al. (2022) Habitat decline of the largest known Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) population in poorly protected areas associated with the hypoxic zone. Front. Mar. Sci. 9:1048959.

SCSFRI, CAFS (2019) Long-term monitoring of population dynamics of Chinese white dolphins (Sousa chinensis) in Lingding Bay of the Pearl River Delta region: the second stage. MEEF 2018006.

Li M et al. (2018) Indo‐Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) in the Moyang River Estuary: The western part of the world’s largest population of humpback dolphins. Aquatic Conserv: Mar Freshw Ecosyst. 2019;1–11.

Chen T et al. (2010) Distribution, abundance, and individual movements of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) in the Pearl River Estuary, China. Mammalia 74: 117–125.

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