Just beyond Hong Kong’s bustling business districts, world-class restaurants, and busy seafood markets lies an underwater world of marine habitats that hosts an array of wildlife. Yet, both inside and outside the metro area, little awareness of the region’s remarkable marine biodiversity exists. This lack of engagement, as well as the limited research that has been done on Hong Kong’s local marine ecology, has constrained conservation efforts and put marine life, such as reef fish, at risk.
Stan Shea, a 2023 Pew marine fellow and marine biologist, seeks to change that by analyzing nearly a decade’s worth of data collected by citizen-scientist divers through the 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey. By continuing to engage citizen scientists in this work through a volunteer diving program and other outreach efforts, Shea hopes to shed light on the region’s diverse reef fish populations—and to help people see reef fish not only as food but as wildlife that merits protection. He aims for his research to also identify potential climate-driven impacts on Hong Kong’s marine environment and to pinpoint priority areas for conservation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What’s unique about Hong Kong’s waters and the marine life that calls the area home?
A: Our waters make up only 0.05% of the marine territory of the South China Sea but have more than 30% of the area’s marine fish fauna. Although everyone knows about our seafood restaurants, the local marine biodiversity is unknown to most. When people—even locals—think of Hong Kong, they don’t expect so much life to be thriving just underneath the waves and around our coastlines. Most people see only a global financial and trade hub filled with shopping malls and skyscrapers surrounded by murky water.
With so much natural marine life at our fingertips, it’s ironic that Hong Kong’s relationship with reef fish and other marine life is often defined by consumption. Thankfully, through the work of local environmental groups, academics, experts, and artists, this is beginning to change.
Q: What are some of the challenges facing Hong Kong’s marine and coastal environments?
A: The lack of awareness of—and attention to—marine conservation among the general public in Hong Kong and the scarcity of related research are among the greatest challenges. We don’t have much research, past or present, that aims to answer some of the most basic questions about local marine ecology, such as: What types of marine life do we have in our waters? How has this changed over the years? What is influencing these changes?
Without this baseline information, it’s challenging to get clear direction about how to proceed with conservation work. How, for instance, would we know where to set up our marine protected areas (MPAs) if we don’t know where the key biodiversity areas are? What species in our waters need conservation attention? What are the best conservation tools we can introduce to help achieve the greatest impact? These are all questions that need to be informed by rigorous and often long-term scientific research.
Q: How can we change that and better understand Hong Kong’s marine biodiversity?
A: In a place with so much marine life, we need to identify what is present. The first effort to systematically document reef fish happened in 1999, and by that time most of the local fisheries had already collapsed. We can never know exactly how many fish were lost from the area, because we have no historical baseline to compare the numbers against. The urgency now is to protect what we have left. This is why the research element of this project is so important: to provide us with the information needed to help us decide how to move forward.
We also need to help members of the public understand the value of local marine biodiversity, because marine species are such a large part of our culture. Hong Kong has the second-largest per capita consumption of seafood in Asia, importing seafood from more than 150 countries or territories around the world. We’re a global trade hub for dried seafood, and we have a robust ornamental fish trade and market; live reef fish tanks are ever present in our wet markets and seafood restaurants. Yet knowledge of marine life is limited. It’s critical that we educate people about local marine biodiversity so they see the importance of conserving our waters. The education work also needs to help people see fish not only as food but also as wildlife that needs protection and attention.
Q: What about Hong Kong’s current conservation measures—how can they be strengthened?
A: The designation of MPAs is currently one of the few measures focused on the conservation of Hong Kong’s marine environment. Even so, existing MPAs make up less than 4% of the local waters. As a comparison, around 40% of our land area is designated as country parks. Our underwater reef fish surveys have found many sites with rich diversity and high ecological or conservation value that are not within existing MPAs or under any protective measures. So increasing MPAs’ coverage could be an important way to strengthen local marine conservation efforts.
And since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have turned to the ocean for recreation and recuperation. This represents both opportunities and challenges. Although more people are now experiencing and appreciating the value of the natural marine environment, the increase in these recreational activities introduces an added pressure. It would be great to have a review on the need for regulations on recreational activities and education, which could focus on the etiquette for interacting with nature. That would help to strengthen local marine conservation.
Q: Why is it important to get people in Hong Kong interested in conservation and citizen science initiatives?
A: People can’t care about what they don’t know. We can work to make changes, set up MPAs, and do all the research, but this work will be far more impactful if we have the participation of people from the local community. Ultimately, they’re the ones who use and interact with the oceans and coasts.
Community participation is a large part of our research. We train recreational scuba divers to conduct underwater reef fish surveys, showing them how to identify different species so they can fully experience the diversity firsthand. And we train volunteers not only on data collection but also on how to take underwater photographs that show key identification features of species. By the end of a season, volunteers are equipped with near-expert knowledge of the local fish diversity and an understanding of why we need to work toward its conservation.
Q: What drove you to study Hong Kong’s marine biodiversity?
A: When I started my master’s degree at The University of Hong Kong, I chose to study reef fish because I found them to be beautiful. The research opened my eyes to Hong Kong’s underwater world. And the more I studied, the more I saw the need for marine research and conservation in Hong Kong.
Q: And that led to the reef survey project?
A: Yes. In 2014, a fellow researcher and I started the first citizen science underwater reef fish surveys, which have continued annually, becoming the only long-term monitoring project for reef fish in Hong Kong. Now, the Pew fellowship will allow us to reach more than 10 years of data collection and will enable us to conduct the first in-depth analysis of the data set, which has never been done for Hong Kong’s reef fish. The results will reveal information on species diversity, changes in species composition, key biodiversity areas for reef fish, population statuses for commercially important and threatened species, and potential climate change impacts on local reef fish species, among other insights. The work will inform next steps for the conservation of reef fish and marine diversity in Hong Kong.
Q: What’s the importance of reef fish to people in Hong Kong?
A: Reef fish are an iconic part of Hong Kong’s traditional dinner table, from simple family meals to large celebratory banquets. So it seemed appropriate to feature reef fish in my Pew research project and to reveal a different side of Hong Kong—with the local community working hard to study and conserve local marine biodiversity.
Q: What’s your advice to anyone considering participating in a local citizen science project?
A: Go for it! Your help can make a real difference for research and conservation, and it can be part of the solution.