The Hong Kong government has vowed to review existing laws to grant greater powers to the conservation department in managing rare animal sightings. The move came as the city’s environmental chief rejected claims that the authorities were slow to help a whale, the suspected carcass of which was found a little more than two weeks after it was first spotted in local waters.
Hong Kong’s current legislation seemed to have limited the powers of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in handling the recent whale sighting in the city, Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan said on Tuesday. His comments came after he visited the High Island Reservoir West Dam in Sai Kung, where experts were conducting a necropsy on the whale carcass.
According to initial findings released by Ocean Park and Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, the new wound found at the front of the whale’s dorsal fin was caused by a hard object. It was likely a vessel or its propeller, the experts said, but further investigation and tests were required to confirm the cause of death.
The carcass of a eight-metre-long male whale was spotted on Monday morning to the south of Shelter Island, around two weeks after a Bryde’s whale was first seen in the waters near Sai Kung in mid-July. The rare sighting attracted many people who hoped to see the animal for themselves, with boats offering rides to approach it. Conservation groups had urged the public to keep their distance and not surround the animal with boats, as that may affect its ability to return to open waters.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday after learning about the necropsy, the environmental minister said the whale’s death showed that people’s treatment of wildlife was “not appropriate.” Whale watching not only harassed the marine mammal, it potentially harmed it, he said.
According to Tse, the government received reports about the whale sighting in mid-July and immediately consulted the AFCD on how to handle the situation. He said the department closely monitored the whale together with experts from the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and studied methods to help the whale leave the shallow waters.
“On July 26th, both the chief secretary and I requested the AFCD to strengthen their efforts. But some restrictions in the current legislation prevented the department from setting up fishing exclusion zones in a short period of time. If they wanted to implement such measures, the procedure under the existing legislation was also more complicated,” Tse said.
The government would review existing legislation to see if there was room for improvement, such as giving the AFCD more flexibility to respond to handle similar situations in the future, the minister said.
Asked if the government would take action under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance and pursue individuals or boat operators who had taken part in whale watching, Tse said the authorities would face “technical difficulties” in pursuing prosecution.
The government had sent patrol vessels to “strongly discourage” whale watching after initial public appeals were ineffective, the official said, adding that the authorities were only able to rely on administrative means to handle the situation.
“It may be difficult to gather evidence that the death or injury of the whale this time was indeed caused by these individuals. The focus should be on how we can do better, faster, and more effectively in the future,” Tse said.
Tse was also asked if the AFCD was derelict in its response to the whale sighting, and whether the department should be held accountable for the incident. The environmental chief said the department had closely monitored the situation from the beginning and consulted various experts. But the situation was “not simple” and there were different opinions among the experts, he said.
“Ultimately, the only thing they agreed on was to refrain from taking any action for the time being and to observe the situation. Therefore, it was not a matter of the AFCD’s intervention or attention being delayed, but rather the practical difficulties of how to handle the situation,” he said.
According to the Code of Conduct for Dolphin Watching Activities released by the AFCD, the speed of watching vessels must not exceed 10 knots and only one boat should be present within 500 metres of a group of dolphins.
The vessels must not approach the dolphins head on, and If any dolphins appeared within 100 metres ahead of the vessel, the boat must slow down to “no-wake speed” and stop.
Tse on Tuesday was asked if the code would be strengthened to improve legal deterrence. The official responded by saying the code was for dolphin watching and it was mainly a set of guidelines for boat operators and companies to arrange tours to watch the Chinese white dolphins.
The current incident showed that many people who took part in whale watching were unaware of this code of conduct, he said, and therefore the government should focus on strengthening public education, drafting contingency plans for response actions, and amending legislation.
“I believe this approach may be more effective than amending the code of conduct or creating a new whale watching code,” he said.
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