Is the Ocean Safe and Clean in Hong Kong (or Anywhere)?

By Dante Archangeli

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Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity

“Chinese people don’t care about dirty water,” Sam, my barber, asserted. We’d been discussing Hong Kong beaches and commiserating about how something that appears so beautiful from a distance can be so unpleasant up close. But Sam’s declaration threw me for a loop. Just a minute before, she’d told me about the beaches she wouldn’t swim at because of the trash in the water and on the sand. “Um, but aren’t you Chinese?” I asked. I knew that she’d grown up in Hong Kong, but my ability to differentiate Hong Kong Chinese from other Asian ethnicities isn’t anywhere near as good as a native’s. “Oh yes, I’m Chinese,” she confirmed with pride. “But I don’t like to go swimming in dirty water. Other Chinese people don’t care. They just go in.”

Sam doesn't like swimming in dirty water.
Sam doesn’t like swimming in dirty water.

I suspect that nobody really likes swimming in dirty water, and I hope the Hong Kong government cares. But the government may have narrow definitions of “dirty” and of “safe”.

Nets keep all of the sharks and some of the trash away from Hong Kong beaches.
Nets keep all of the sharks and some of the trash away from Hong Kong beaches.

For safety, 36 government-maintained swimming beaches in Hong Kong have been equipped with shark nets since three swimmers died in ten days in 1995. The nets are inspected by divers twice weekly. It seems to have worked. There have been no fatalities in Hong Kong from sharks since the nets were installed. They also help to reduce the amount of floating trash that migrates to the beach. But still there is plenty that gets to shore even with nets–and even more where there aren’t.

I love the ocean and coast. While a graduate student living in a Hancock Park guest house in Los Angeles, I’d get up before dawn and drive (it was L.A. after all) half an hour to Santa Monica. I’d run on the nearly deserted beach and then get back home before rush hour. Every summer for 15 or more years I’ve spent many hours on chilly, exposed Oregon beaches and was eagerly anticipating the warm protected waters of Hong Kong. Now that I’m here the water is definitely warm but sadly also frequently filthy with litter, especially plastics. Where the beach is not publicly maintained and cleaned, the litter builds up. It can be so bad that, at coastline environment surveys currently being conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), participants are required to wear shoes and gloves to avoid injury.

Shoes and gloves are recommended beach attire.
Shoes and gloves are recommended beach attire.

Plastic debris is pervasive and persistent in all the oceans of the world. It does not biodegrade and it comes from a variety of sources. Cruise ships generate a variety of pollution including huge amounts of solid waste and, depending on location, discharge it directly into the water. Marine transport, commercial fishing, and recreational boating are also sources. But surprisingly the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that, for U.S. beaches, trash is more likely to come from land-based sources, 49 percent of total debris, than from ocean-based sources, 18 percent. Land or ocean sources could not be differentiated for 33 percent of the debris.

Hong Kong does not seem to have similar data, but the WWF is working to fill that gap. Land-based debris comes primarily from litter washed into storm drains and streams and then carried to the ocean during heavy rains. Here in HK I occasionally see litter plumes in the ocean meandering past my flat near Sandy Bay and wonder if goof-ups at the solid waste transfer facility wharf a couple kilometers (1.2 miles) up the coast near Kennedy Town could also be a source.

Midway is far from everything, except plastic.
Midway is far from everything, except plastic.

Plastic pollution can kill marine life directly or indirectly through malnutrition when ingested. Midway Atoll is approximately 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) northwest of the nearest significant population center, Hawaii. You’d expect its environment to be pristine. But it isn’t. Research performed ten years ago found that 97.6 percent of the dead albatross chicks studied on Midway had plastic in their digestive tracts fed to them by their parents who have even larger plastic items in their guts. Around the world fish and marine mammals are strangled by plastic debris like bags, six pack rings, fishing lines, and rope and even whales can be trapped and killed by discarded fishing nets and rigging. Micro-plastic particles act as chemical sponges and soak up toxics like PCBs. Fish absorb toxins from eating micro-plastics. The toxins bioaccumulate and ultimately are passed up the food chain to humans.


Okay, so plastic litter in the ocean is unpleasant and it kills marine life. And maybe if I eat too much fish it might even be a long-term health risk for me. But being practical, will I get sick if I swim in the ocean?

Water quality is posted at Hong Kong beaches.
Water quality is posted at Hong Kong beaches.

Hong Kong monitors ocean water quality at 44 beaches three times per month when beaches are officially open for swimming (March to October for most, although some stay open year round). E. coli bacterial levels are measured and the results posted in near real-time on the Environmental Protection Department’s (EPD) Beach Water Quality web page. The information is well presented and easy to find and navigate–much more so than that for most U.S. beaches. In fact, for my favorite Oregon beaches, water quality is not even tested. Oregon ocean water seems clean to me, but without testing who knows? The results from a Hong Kong beach’s most recent water quality tests are posted on a sign at the beach in addition to posting on the web page. But it’s difficult, even with plentiful data, to know how Hong Kong beach water quality compares with that of other countries.

According to the EPD, Hong Kong developed its beach Water Quality Objective (WQO) in the late 1980s to be consistent with then-current World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The WQO was set at a geometric mean E. coli level of 180 colonies per 100 mL of water. Hong Kong deems water with E. coli above that level to be unhealthy. The EPD characterizes beach water as Good or Fair if it has E. coli levels below 180. Poor and Very Poor water have higher levels. But it’s hard to know what that really means because in 2003 WHO Guidelines were revised to measure ocean water quality based on enterococci bacteria levels. So while Hong Kong determines ocean water quality based on E. Coli levels, much of the available information for the rest of the world is based on enterococci levels. Although Hong Kong beach water is usually fairly clean based on old WHO bacterial standards, one can’t tell how it is under current standards. Proposed 2012 U.S. EPA guidelines would include E. coli as a measurement parameter, but at much lower levels than Hong Kong allows, 100 or 126, rather than 180. That suggests that Hong Kong water would appear more problematic under today’s standards.

But even for humans, bacterial measurements address only one aspect of ocean water safety.

Red tide is not always red here or elsewhere.
Red tide is not always red here, or elsewhere.

Humans can be sickened by eating seafood affected by red tide algae blooms. I recently learned that red tide isn’t necessarily red. Here in Hong Kong it can be light beige-brown in color. At least that’s what I was told about a week ago after seeing what looked like the aftermath of a really big giant experiencing the results of food poisoning while swimming in the ocean.

The HK Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) website has a Red Tide Situation Weekly Update page. The site presents good information if you dig deeply enough, but at first read it is sanguine about the problems associated with red tide. “Red tides are natural phenomena…. Although red tides occur quite frequently in Hong Kong averaging about 20-30 incidents in a year, the blooms associated with harmful effects are not common…. Red tide is initiated by a combination of… natural factors… [and] anthropogenic factors…” I looked up anthropogenic to be sure of its exact meaning–adjective: (chiefly of environmental pollution and pollutants) originating in human activity.

What goes down the drain in the Tai Hau Wan Village ends up, untreated, in the ocean.
What goes down the drain in the Tai Hau Wan Village ends up, untreated, in the ocean.

The AFCD website does not speculate on whether or not the raw sewage flushed into Aberdeen Harbor, just south of where I live, from the hundreds of people living on boats there could be a relevant anthropogenic factor to the three red tide blooms that I saw within five days in late July and early August. Nor does it address the sewage flowing into streams that lead to Sandy Bay from the Tai Hau Wan Village within walking distance of my flat, nor whether sewage from the 850 other villages also not connected to sewage treatment facilities could be a factor in HK’s 20 to 30 red tide incidents a year. It’s easier for the local Hong Kong government to openly or tacitly blame mainland China for HK’s environmental problems, including red tide. According to a local expert, “The economic boom across the border leads to more sewage discharge into the sea and rivers…. So this is no longer a local phenomenon but a regional one.”

Unfortunately, even when sewage is treated before discharge into rivers or the ocean, problems can still arise. Pharmaceuticals in nature are being found in more and more bodies of water. The source for part of that is runoff from livestock operations where high doses of antibiotics and hormones are commonly used. But treated municipal wastewater is also suspected as a culprit because municipal treatment in most, if not all countries, does not remove pharmaceuticals. The main source of drugs entering domestic wastewater is believed to be unmetabolized medications passing through humans.

Future posts will explore grass roots efforts by organizations and individuals making a difference working on the front lines of protecting and healing our oceans.



Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable construction and development. He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder.

All photos and the Dirty Oceans video are by Dante Archangeli.  The song “Don’t Go Near the Water,” featured in the Dirty Oceans video, was written by the Beach Boys in 1971, more than 40 years ago. Apparently we humans are slow learners. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.