How nightly marine light pollution harms sea life, the environment and Hongkongers

(20 August 2023 Hong Kong Free Press)
Marine light pollution caused by bright fishing lights is a growing concern in Hong Kong. It adversely affects the environment, disrupts coastal residents, harms marine life, and poses risks to navigation. Clear rules and regulations are essential to mitigate this issue and strike a balance between the fishing industry’s requirements and the protection of the marine ecosystem.
The bright fishing lights create an artificial glow that affects coastal residents, causing sleep disturbance and health problems. They also prevent researchers, photographers and astronomers from observing the night sky. The recent Perseid meteor shower, for instance, was obscured by bright fishing lights around Lantau Island.
Marine light pollution may confuse animals that rely on natural light for navigation. For instance, green turtles, an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, nesting on Sham Wan Beach, Lamma Island, could be disoriented by artificial light. The misguided hatchlings could die of dehydration with a longer journey to reach the water.
The beach and its adjacent waters in the inlet of the sea have been designated as a Restricted Area under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170) since April 2021, with no entry allowed between April and October every year. Unfortunately, little has been done to restrict the use of fishing lights in nearby waters. Our light pollution reporting platform has received reports of fishing vessels using bright lights in the waters between Lamma Island and Stanley. We are concerned that the unregulated use of bright fishing lights could affect the long-term health of our marine ecosystem.
In addition to disturbing marine life, excessive light may compromise navigational safety by reducing visibility and increasing the risk of collisions and accidents in Hong Kong’s busy waters. Prolonged exposure to intense light can also cause eye problems for fishermen aboard vessels with dazzling fishing lamps. Addressing this issue is crucial for ensuring the safety of all involved in fishing activities.
Establishing clear measures and controls is essential to prevent and mitigate marine light pollution. Standardising lighting equipment on fishing vessels by limiting brightness levels and promoting focused and directed lighting systems can reduce light spill. In addition, it is essential to require the use of appropriate shades on fishing lights to minimise light spill. The implementation of these measures will effectively reduce the impact of light pollution on coastal communities and marine ecosystems.
Under the Merchant Shipping (Local vessels) (General) Regulation (Cap. 548F), offenders only have to pay a lenient penalty of HK$5,000 for using bright lights that can interfere with navigation and air safety. We believe that non-compliance should result in more severe penalties and sanctions that directly affect fishing vessel licences. Linking compliance with lighting standards to the continuation of fishing licences will motivate fishermen to adopt responsible lighting practices.
While banning fishing lights may not be practical, finding a balance between the fishing industry’s needs and environmental conservation is crucial. Collaboration between fishermen, environmental organisations, and government agencies is necessary to develop innovative solutions that protect livelihoods and the marine environment.
Using bright fishing lights in Hong Kong’s waters contributes to marine light pollution, necessitating urgent action. The disturbance to coastal residents, disruption of the marine ecosystem, and compromised navigational safety underline the importance of implementing clear measures and controls. Standardising lighting equipment can achieve a balance that benefits the community, the fishing industry, and the environment.
Steven Chan Wing Kit and Thomas Chan Ting Hin are members of the environmental affairs team at The Green Earth, a local environmental group. They are interested in light pollution, waste management, plastic pollution and the climate crisis. Their works hope to shape better environmental policies in Hong Kong.