BY Ryan Swift on 25 May 2023

Tina Chan says The Swire Trust, a key supporter of marine conservation in Hong Kong, is stepping up its effort in public policy and advocacy

Tina Chan, the Group Head of Philanthropy for John Swire & Sons (HK) Ltd overseeing the Swire Group Charitable Trust (Swire Trust), says that the Trust plans to further build awareness of marine conservation issues and advocate for policy changes in Hong Kong while expanding its reach into mainland China.

The Trust, funded by the Swire Group, has three main pillars – education, the arts and marine conservation. Swire’s commitment on marine conservation was best demonstrated when Sir John Swire, an ardent advocate of marine conservation, provided seed money for a marine research station on Cape D’Aguilar in 1989, now known as the Swire Institute of Marine Science (SWIMS) under the University of Hong Kong.

Chan says that the while funding for scientific research and education on marine issues remain important in improving our marine environment, the Trust sees public awareness, policy changes and advocacy as increasingly important in making real changes. The Trust provides funding for projects and NGOs and connects them with other funders and NGOs who may be of help.

Chan began her career in public affairs before switching fields to philanthropy, becoming head of the trust six years ago. Since then, she’s had a steep learning curve on all things related to marine conservation and science.

The Swire Institute of Marine Science (SWIMS), part of Hong Kong University, was an early example of Swire’s support for marine conservation

“Marine conservation is very much underfunded,” Chan says. “So, I do personally spend a lot of my time on marine conservation projects and look for projects to support.”

The trust focuses on three key issues – overfishing, biodiversity loss, and pollution – and addresses them with policy change, research and education. Currently, the Trust is actively managing 50 supported projects, and one third of those are in marine conservation, according to Chan.

Among the marine projects the trust is working on is expansion of the SWIMS facility, located at Cape D’Aguilar, to include a public education space, oyster reef restoration work in Hong Kong. The Trust supports the Asia node of Fishbase and Sealifebase, two websites that are like Wikipedias for sea life that scientists and public can access. The Trust also supports Stan Shea’s 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey, which has documented new fish species in Hong Kong.

Read: Stan Shea on the 114°E Hong Kong Reef Fish Survey

Chan says she has tweaked the mission statement of the Trust to focus more on policy and advocacy for the marine environment. A big part of that was the creation last year of the Hong Kong Marine Protection Alliance, a grouping of about 30 members (NGOs and academics) dedicated to advancing the cause of ocean conservation in Hong Kong.

The idea for the alliance began over three years ago when Chan realised that many ocean NGOs were doing similar types of work and research. “I was looking at our portfolio, and I noticed that all these individual projects are all great, and there are a few issues that people are repeatedly working on, but they don’t necessarily work with each other. And I saw a lot of opportunities to connect the dots.”

Read: Hidden heroes – oyster reef restoration in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Marine Protection Alliance was originally supposed to be a platform for sharing information and opportunities, but Chan says it has since snowballed into a project to lobby for policy change in marine conservation.

“My early career was in public affairs, so that part kind of kicked in. I was thinking how awesome it would be if we could (have) any type of policy change related to marine conservation.”

Chan points out that after a trawling ban was put into place in Hong Kong in 2012, there hasn’t been much further progress. The focus for Marine Protection Alliance is on increasing marine protected areas (MPAs) around Hong Kong.

Volunteers at Pak Nai working to conserve marine habitats

Chan says there are three main asks of the Marine Protection Alliance. One is to immediately designate 10% of Hong Kong waters as MPA. The second is to make 20% of those MPAs strict “no take” zones, where no fishing of any kind is allowed. The final ask is for Hong Kong to match global commitments to designate 30% of its waters as fully protected areas by 2030 – the 30 by 30 target.

Chan has big commitments to environmental protection and marine conservation issues. Awareness is top of her personal wish list. “People can’t protect something that they don’t love, and if they don’t know about it, they don’t get to love it.”

“The reason why people don’t care much and don’t put in as much effort in the ocean as other things, is because it’s out of sight and out of mind,” she says, adding that the plight of oceans doesn’t generate as much sympathy as land mammals.

Read: UBS says marine conservation philanthropy far less than the need

Chan points out that most people probably don’t know that Hong Kong has more hard corals than the Caribbean. One of this year’s highlights is a multimedia project in partnership with National Geographic that showcases Hong Kong’s local champions and the city’s rich marine biodiversity. The project will be brought to Swire-owned retail properties later this summer.

Tina Chan: “The Chinese policy on environmental protection and marine conservation is way ahead of Hong Kong, and it’s really trying to lead the world on it.”

Currently, the work of Swire Trust is focused on Hong Kong, with just one project in China, the Xiamen University Dongshan Swire Marine Station, founded in 2017, to understand the impact of climate change and human activities on the marine ecosystem.

But Chan says that will change as of 2024, with more donations and projects planned to help marine conservation in China. “The Chinese policy on environmental protection and marine conservation is way ahead of Hong Kong, and it’s really trying to lead the world on it. I think that’s a very good sign.”

The world’s oceans have been hit hard by pollution, plastics, the effects of climate change, habitat destruction and overfishing. Chan says that when she started learning about ocean issues, she was shocked. “Everything I have learned (about the issues) has been a ‘Oh No!’ moment for me,” she says. “But the good thing is that I realised that if you let the ocean rest, things can regrow.”

Chan hopes to get Hong Kong to protect 30% of its waters by 2030, joining the global 30 by 30 movement

She notes that one of the impacts of Covid was to give the oceans a small reprieve from human activity. It also may have been good for peoples’ outlook.

“I think because of Covid, our outlook on life is different. It is about quality of life, and we’re more in touch with the environment.”