Impossible to Mitigate Impact of Planned Petrochemical Park on West Coast Population of Critically Endangered Dolphins; Hong Kong Expert Urges Taiwan to Act Immediately

Responding to the long-delayed Environmental Protection Administration's (EPA) invitation, Dr. Samuel Hung, Chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, came to speak in Taiwan on 9 April 2010. He shared expertise acquired over ten years of experience researching Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) and participation in over twenty Hong Kong environmental impact assessments (EIA) involving the dolphins. In 2002 he participated with the Taiwanese cetacean research team "FormosaCetus Research and Conservation Group" to launch a survey which resulted in the first scientific confirmation of the Eastern Taiwan Strait population of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins; in 2004 he attended "The First Workshop on Conservation and Research Needs of Taiwan's Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin, Sousa chinensis", and he participated in the planning of the 2007 "Second International Workshop on Conservation and Research Needs of the Eastern Taiwan Strait Population of Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins, Sousa chinensis". He is one of 18 international marine biologists that formed the international advisory group, Eastern Taiwan Strait Sousa Technical Advisory Working Group (ETSSTAWG), whose efforts resulted in the 2008 designation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature of the population as CR or critically endangered, only one step from being "extinct". In recent years ETSSTAWG and Taiwan's Matsu's Fish Conservation Union have urged the government to demarcate the population’s “important habitat” under Taiwan’s Endangered Species Act.

During his speech at the EPA, Dr. Hung clarified and tried to emphasize that Taiwan's and Hong Kong's populations of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin are not only distinct from one another but also that the nature of the environments they inhabit are completely different and thus present completely different conservation considerations and challenges. Because suitable habitat around the Pearl River Estuary is quite large, the range of the Hong Kong Sousa is “three dimensional” and quite extensive. By contrast, Taiwan's river estuaries are quite small while the west coast of Taiwan is overdeveloped, resulting in a shortage of food resources for the Sousa forcing them to feed within a long narrow corridor that runs north to south along the coast. Furthermore, whereas the population of Sousa within the Pearl River Estuary number over 2600, the highest of any of the distinct Sousa populations throughout the species’ range, the latest research indicates that there are far fewer than 100 dolphins remaining in the waters of the eastern Taiwan Strait, the smallest of any of the Sousa populations. Any development on the west coast of Taiwan has a major adverse impact on the population’s prospects for survival.

Dr. Hung further explained that thanks to various efforts over the past decade or so Hong Kong government authorities, media, and citizens are all much more aware of Sousa conservation, so Hong Kong's EIA mechanisms already do a good job of making information publicly available. Each development plan must provide detailed accurate descriptions of ecological impacts and mitigation measures and provide clear plans for environmental oversight during construction. Dr. Hung especially noted that only projects that are deemed absolutely necessary or pose minimal environmental impacts would begin the EIA process in the first place.

Legislator Tien Chiu-Chin and the Matsu's Fish Conservation Union invited Dr. Hung to convene a public hearing at the Legislative Yuan entitled "Strategies for Conservation of Taiwan's Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins". At the hearing each government office described the statues of its own conservation measures. The Council of Agriculture also promised to announce the range of the dolphin's “important habitat” before the end of the year, so in the future any development activities that would disturb the dolphins could be monitored and controlled under the Wildlife Conservation Act.

During the hearing, however, Dr. Hung noted that simply demarcating a protected area would be insufficient; management and supervision of the protected area, continued research and monitoring of the dolphin population status, rigorous EIA execution, and public education are all indispensable components of dolphin conservation.

Dr. Hung stressed, "International experience clearly demonstrates that coastal land reclamation has an impact on coastal cetaceans. Significant portions of their already highly compromised habitat will be completely and forever eliminated, and no feasible mitigation exists that can reduce the impact of coastal land reclamation. In the meantime, the Industrial Development Bureau brazenly clings to the absurd assertion that Kuokuang Petrochemical will "build a transecting canal for the dolphins to swim through," (aka “death channel”) while the Water Resources Agency continues to argue that building the Da-du River diversion weir to meet the water requirements of the planned Kuokuang Petrochemical plant and the fourth phase expansion of the Taiwan Central Science Park would only minimally impact the dolphins. These statements make clear that “powerful” administrative agencies continue to push unrestrained short term economic development while adopting a sloppy and careless attitude toward ecological conservation; whereas the “weak agencies”, those charged with conservation and environmental protection (i.e. the Forestry Bureau and EPA), on the other hand, could offer only excuses and the lame defense that they “act in accordance with the law.” The EPA claimed that research of Taiwan's Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin is insufficient, and the Council of Agriculture explained that demarcating important habitat still requires time to coordinate. In exasperation, Dr. Hung emphatically rebutted, "There is already more than sufficient academic research and expert discussion. Taiwan's Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins have reached a critical state. Taiwan must take immediate resolute action to preserve their continued existence!"