Artificial Reefs as part of the Solution for Biodiversity Loss

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Zoë Stein, a student in Sustainability and Society at Arizona State University, explains how the artificial reef technology alone is not enough for saving Hong Kong’s endangered marine life.

(Image: Hong Kong Artificial Reef Project)

Hong Kong suffers from declining marine resources due to overfishing, water pollution and huge consumption of seafood. The problem is not uncommon for waters that are located in close proximity to densely populated urban areas. Nonetheless, it is problematic as communities depend on their marine resources in their daily lives for food, clean water, jobs, recreation, and so on.

One technology that seems promising and has been employed since the 1990s in Hong Kong and many coastal regions around the world is the artificial reef structure (AR). According to Artificial Reef Project, the Hong Kong government contributed over HK$100 million in 1995 to the project, aiming to enhance local marine resources. The seabeds of Hong Kong’s waters lack hard surfaces for marine life to live on. ARs provide shelter and food for large fish populations. This does not only serve the good of these fishes, it is also vital to the already deteriorating biodiversity of the area as a whole.

ARs are good, but not enough. The technology should not be seen as the final solution, but rather only a small part of the necessary measures that have to be taken for the healthy co-existence of marine life and a densely populated mega-city. For sure, the AR is a wondrous innovation, but it does not exactly deal with the root of the problem. It is like emptying out an overflowing bathtub using a tiny cup whilst the faucet is still up. ARs take a long time to attract marine life. It is only more of a challenge when the human practices that cause such grave harm on biodiversity in the first place are still going on. The current rate of conservation cannot possibly reverse the unsustainable path towards ecological disaster that Hong Kong is already on.

Complementary to the AR projects and in order to bring those who keep the faucet running to the table, the Hong Kong government placed a ban on trawling at the end of 2012. Additionally, the amended Fisheries Protection Ordinance was passed to protect important fish spawning and nursery grounds in Hong Kong waters. The ban was a bold and proactive move, yet still insufficient, even in conjunction with ARs. Wildlife does not adhere to arbitrary geopolitical boundaries. While trawling is illegal in Hong Kong, this might not be the same in neighbouring countries.

From a social perspective, the ban is not as friendly to the local fishing industry as to the environment. It is important to conserve fish populations and save the ecosystem; it is also important, though, that local fishermen will benefit from – and not suffer from – the success of the reefs. In the same year as the trawling ban was imposed, protective policies for the local fishing industry were simultaneously carried out. The government designated specific fishery protection areas where local fisheries can continue to operate at an appropriate level of fishing effort. The government also limits the number of new entrants into the industry. Non-local fishing vessels are prohibited from fishing in local waters; and fishing activities by non-fishing vessels are restricted. Such protective policies should continue to be expanded upon and enforced.

Local trawler-owners whose livelihoods are directly affected by the trawling ban also receive monetary compensation from the “one-off assistance scheme”. On top of the ex-gratia payments, the government buys out trawler-owners who voluntarily surrender their vessels. Local docklands employed by trawler-owners can receive one-off assistance as well. These policies, founded upon a holistic attitude towards the local fishing industry, are exactly what makes a sustainable future regarding marine life in the area possible.

The indirect cost of education is being considered but only minimally. The government has introduced a special training programme to the affected trawler-owners and their local deckhands. The programme equips them with the skills for other sustainable fishing operations such as mariculture and recreational fishing. It works to target those most affected by the policy, but it does little to engage the community as a whole. Specifically, the educational programmes need to be expanded and include the average Hong Kong citizens – the consumers. They should be educated on the unintended consequences of overfishing and the impacts of individual actions. They should also be informed of the logistics of the policy scheme for directly affected stakeholders like the trawler-owners and docklands, and why it is worth the government’s investment.

These policies depend on government enforcement. This requires upfront costs that – while high, are substantially lower than the cost Hong Kong would be faced with in the near future if they do not act on the issue. A healthy ecosystem provides many benefits. This cost will allow for a return on investment, unlike leaving the ecological disaster to roll like a snowball down a hill.

Just last month, the Legislative Council approved controls over the use of fuel by vessels in local waters, which will take effect this July, thereby alleviating pollution in the region. As the public becomes increasingly aware of the ecological perils of decaying marine life, policies move at a faster pace, which is vital for a wicked problem like this, where urgency is evident. Overall, this progress is slow, but as Hong Kong continues to strengthen these policies, we certainly have reasons to stay optimistic about the future.

Opposition to these policies should be handled with care by clearly outlining what the alternative future looks like for a Hong Kong with little to no marine resources, which unquestionably will be very bleak. This can be done with both future-scenario planning and modelling. ARs should continue to be invested in, but not without collective efforts to minimise pollution. Wide-scale education initiatives to raise awareness and change public behavior are essential. A holistic approach that addresses unintended consequences of the actions of every member of the society will undoubtedly be most successful in the years to come.

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Zoë Stein
Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability and Society with a Minor in Nonprofit Management, Arizona State University.

Stein is an undergraduate student at ASU, graduating in 2016. She will be attending City University in Hong Kong in June 2015 to study Urban policy and Biodiversity Management.”]