BY Ryan Swift on 4 Nov 2023

Marine biologist Stan Shea has discovered 50 new fish species in Hong Kong, as well as some of the best places to Scuba dive in Hong Kong

Hong Kong marine biologist Stan Shea has made some remarkable discoveries about reef fish in Hong Kong waters. Thanks to his unique research programme, 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey, Shea and his collaborators have found more fish species in Hong Kong than had been previously recorded. He has also found new habitats for Hong Kong’s fish population that should encourage more Marine Protected Areas, which limit or prohibit fishing activity. 

That’s potentially good news for boaters and yacht owners who want beautiful places to explore and perhaps do a bit of diving. 

Shea is the marine programme director of Bloom Association Hong Kong and leads ADM Capital Foundation’s marine programme. He is also one of seven recipients of the 2023 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. The researchers – from Australia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are awarded US$150,000 grants over three years to pursue marine conservation research projects.

Hong Kong marine biologist and Pew Grant winner Stan Shea

Shea was awarded his grant for his work on the 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey, which he started in 2014. The aim of the survey is to create a ten-year data set about Hong Kong’s reef fish population and the impact of climate change, as well as identify key habitat areas that need conservation. The project is supported by volunteers as a citizen science initiative. Over the years, Shea and his helpers have taken countless underwater photos, along the way revealing some of the hidden beauty in Hong Kong. 

In this interview, Shea reveals some of the details of his work, some of the early results, his favourite places to dive with sea life in Hong Kong, and what local boat owners can do to help. 

APB: What was your inspiration and reasoning for starting the 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey? Why did you think citizen science was the way to accomplish your goals?

Stan Shea: We first started the 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey project in 2014. At that time, my good friend and I were conducting underwater surveys for other marine life and noticed that there was quite an impressive diversity of reef fishes locally.

We realised that any research into this local diversity was done a long time ago. For example, available guides for “common reef fishes of Hong Kong” showed species that were no longer common in local waters – many we did not encounter even once during our dives.

To provide an updated picture of the local reef fishes, we launched the 114°E Survey to collect data on species diversity, qualitative abundance, and local distribution through scuba diving surveys, with the help of citizen scientists.

“One of the things that we wanted to collect from the project, apart from data, were photographs of the reef fish species taken in their natural habitat. Such photographs are lacking in the South China Sea region” – Stan Shea

We decided to recruit recreational divers as volunteers because we saw that there were many good scuba divers and underwater photographers in Hong Kong. One of the things that we wanted to collect from the project, apart from data, were photographs of the reef fish species taken in their natural habitat. Such photographs are lacking in the South China Sea region.

By involving recreational divers, it also presented us with the opportunity to educate them on local marine diversity, as well as associated conservation issues. I hoped that through this, we could encourage a culture of not only awareness of the incredible marine diversity we have in Hong Kong, but also caring about our most urgent conservation issues, at least among the local scuba diving community. Through that, we hoped to expand this knowledge and attitude to other users of Hong Kong’s waters and eventually to the public as well.

APB: Now that the programme is nearly 10 years old, can you share any early results from your observations and the data from 114 HK Reef Fish Survey?

Stan Shea: Yes, of course. We have yet to conduct an in-depth analysis of the data, but we have identified some sites that seem to be demonstrating consistently high reef fish species diversity, while others are sites where we more often find species that are new to Hong Kong records.

To date, we have identified at least 50 species that are new to Hong Kong’s official records. This effectively expands Hong Kong’s reef fish species list by at least 12%. We cannot be sure yet why – whether this might be because there was limited survey effort in the past, or if it might be associated with potential impacts of climate change.

“We have identified at least 50 species that are new to Hong Kong’s official records”

We will investigate this when our dataset reaches 10 years. With the local distribution data, we can hopefully produce some indication of local Key Fish Biodiversity Hotspots, and work towards getting those areas protected, as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

As governments across the globe have commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to increase the coverage of MPAs in local waters to reach 30% by the year 2030 (also known as “30 by 30”), we hope to be able to supply data that can highlight areas that are important for reef fish conservation for consideration.

APB: Have you changed the way you manage the work of the Survey since you founded it? What have you learned about running citizen science initiatives like this in the marine environment?

SS: Over the years, we have welcomed more divers with different backgrounds into the volunteer group. At the very beginning, the survey team mainly consisted of divers who had at least some experience as volunteers for other underwater survey programmes. Eventually, we were able to develop a training system that enabled volunteers with little or no previous experience in conducting any kind of underwater surveys to learn how to do it quickly.

“We were able to develop a training system that enabled volunteers with little or no previous experience in conducting any kind of underwater surveys to learn how to do it quickly”

This training included learning the methodology, how to take photographs that showed the key identification features for different species, and species identification. As we have recorded more than 400 reef fish species in local waters, it means that these volunteers will have to identify these species with the help of our field guide for accurate data entry.

This also includes a system of cross data checking to ensure accuracy, such as requiring divers to submit a photograph of any species they see that are not considered common for the survey or for the dive site. New joiners are also always paired with a dive buddy with experience in the survey.

This system has fortunately worked well, and many of the 50 new-to-Hong Kong species that the survey has recorded were first found by our volunteers.

APB: You have said that you want to raise awareness among Hong Kong people about marine conservation. In the time that you have been running the survey, have you noticed any change in ideas and perception regarding marine conservation and seafood consumption?

SS: Changing the perception of people is never an easy task, especially for something like marine life, which traditionally in Hong Kong is seen purely as “seafood” – just food to be eaten.

Marine conservation has also rarely been a priority for Hong Kong, with few people aware of the incredible diversity that we have. For instance, our reef fish diversity is comparable even to the tropical Caribbean.

“Marine conservation has also rarely been a priority for Hong Kong, with few people aware of the incredible diversity that we have”

I hope that through the 114°E Survey we can start to change this by showing people what we have in our waters, showing them a very different side of the colourful and sometimes quirky reef fish and asking people to look at the marine life as not only “food”, but also part of the wildlife that deserves and requires our effort in conservation and protection.

 

A pink-reddish Zebra Lionfish

Zebra Lionfish photographed during a night dive

Marine-focused conservation initiatives for Hong Kong are still quite few when compared to the work focusing on terrestrial plants and animals or on international or global issues, and I hope that by having more projects like the 114°E Survey, we can begin to change the way people think about the marine life.

APB: After ten years of running the Survey, what are your plans? Do you imagine running similar programmes in other locations around Asia-Pacific? Or do you think the Survey can be expanded in scope within Hong Kong? How will winning the Pew Fellowship (Congratulations!) help in this?

SS: Thank you so much. Bringing the project to other locations in the Asia-Pacific is definitely an attractive thought, and I do hope that we can inspire similar work to be undertaken in other places, or even just locally for other kinds of marine life, like marine invertebrates.

The Pew Fellowship will help us to bring the data collection through underwater surveys to ten years, which will create the most long-term dataset yet for reef fish for Hong Kong. Once we reach that ten-year mark, we will begin to conduct various analyses to provide a comprehensive picture for Hong Kong. This will help us to answer questions such as, how has the species composition changed in the past ten years? Do we appear to be losing or gaining species? What are the areas now most in need of protection or most eligible for the next MPA? How effective are current MPAs in protecting the species? All of this can feed into Hong Kong’s marine conservation strategy.

“The Pew Fellowship will help us to bring the data collection through underwater surveys to ten years, which will create the most long-term dataset yet for reef fish for Hong Kong”

Moreover, the Pew Fellowship will help us to kickstart education initiatives to bring all this new knowledge to more audiences in Hong Kong. These initiatives will likely become more of the project’s focus in the years to come, to continue building momentum for marine conservation locally.

A Yellow Boxfish

For example, with the support from other funding sources as well, we are currently working to create an identification guide to Hong Kong’s reef fish, which will include all species documented in our surveys. These will be distributed and made available throughout Hong Kong, including to schools, the diving community, and decision makers. From there, we will continue to do more outreach work, to help bring Hong Kong’s reef fish to the front of people’s minds.

APB: On a lighter note, you have been diving all over Hong Kong – what are your personal favourite places to dive?

SS: This is a tough question, and as a diver I think the answer has changed many times depending on the year! As the person in charge of planning the dives though, the top dive site would have to be Sharp Island. Located just ten minutes from Sai Kung pier, the dive site is sheltered so that if our scheduled survey day turns out to be very windy or met with poor weather (but not poor enough to cancel), we can always fall back to it. Sharp Island is one of the dive sites with the highest species counts in our surveys, with a long strip of corals so beautiful that the local divers have endearingly named the site “Hong Kong’s Maldives”.

Read: The best places to Scuba dive in Hong Kong

Despite being a very popular dive site for the reasons above, several of our new-to-Hong Kong records have also been found here. We always say that Sharp Island never disappoints, and always has a few surprises ready for us. Having said that, Sharp Island could easily be Hong Kong’s busiest dive site, both underwater and above water with ships full of visitors every day. Indeed, the pandemic has led a lot more people to enjoy Hong Kong’s outdoors, and with this I hope that awareness for etiquette and how to behave responsibly in nature is also increased.

“Sharp Island is one of the dive sites with the highest species counts in our surveys, with a long strip of corals so beautiful that the local divers have endearingly named the site Hong Kong’s Maldives”

Apart from Sharp Island, a few of my other personal favourites are Basalt Island, the Ninepins, Bluff Island and recently, Pak Lap. All of these are already quite popular dive sites, but those who are paying attention will find that they carry extremely high species diversity, often with some rather rare species mixed among our familiar-looking friends.

Stan Shea

APB: What would you encourage Hong Kong yacht owners to do to be better stewards of Hong Kong’s marine environment?

SS: One simple but effective way, which I’m sure many frequent sea-goers are already aware of – is to save your cleaning / bathing products for when you’re back on land. Marine life can be very sensitive to the chemicals we put into the ocean, even in small quantities, and are harmed a lot by the ones that we don’t often think about. Shower gels, shampoos and conditioners, dishwashing liquid, or even just sunscreen that washes off your body when you go for a swim or a rinse – for this last one, I’ve heard that it is possible to find alternatives that are “coral-safe” and more mindful of the impacts it leaves on the marine life.

Hong Kong’s Sharp Island, near Sai Kung

But for other products, where possible I would always advise our volunteers to use nothing but water for rinsing on the boat. It is also important to be mindful of items getting blown into the water when we’re not looking, like plastic bags, hats, sunglasses, cutlery, or even things like phones and drones.

This is just a short list of the things we have found during our surveys, and they of course, all become marine trash. While there are groups out there doing their best to clean out beaches and popular dive or boat party sites, we can all also play a part by keeping a closer eye on our belongings.

APB: How could a yacht owner help you in your work?

SS: As yacht owners, I think the most important way you can help in this work is to stay educated on the local marine life and the associated conservation issues, and to speak up for the issues that you feel are worth supporting.

Read: Our interview with Lantau Yacht Club owner Victor Cha

As frequent users of Hong Kong waters, your voice can be powerful to help us get messages across to wider audiences, and to the ears of people we perhaps couldn’t reach. Please support the movement towards more sustainable consumption practices especially for seafood, and the fulfilment of the “30 by 30” commitment for more of the local waters being designated as MPAs. As always with environmental issues we are all part of the problem, but we can also always choose to be a part of the solution. Every voice counts!

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