Career Path

In-depth studies of ocean life

By Charles Mak

Environmental conservation, Joseph Sham, Senior marine conservation officer, Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department
Photo: Edde Ngan

Every weekend at this time of year Hong Kong's hiking trails are filled with refugees from office life breathing in deeply, admiring the views, and doing their best to get in touch with nature. As they make their way home, many are no doubt asking themselves why they are not out there every day of the week.

It is a question that Joseph Sham also considered in his final year at university and the answer led to a decision he has never regretted. "I knew I wanted a job which was close to nature," says the senior marine conservation officer for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. "It had always been my main interest and I had chosen courses which allowed me to learn more about the environment generally."

That was around 20 years ago. Upon graduation, Mr Sham joined the government but soon realised the only way to make headway in his career was by studying overseas. "At that time there was no professional training offered by the fisheries industry or by universities in Hong Kong," he explains. "Therefore, I was fortunate to win a government scholarship to study in the UK. When I returned, I was better qualified and had broader experience so opportunities for advancement started to come my way."

There will be career opportunities in the commercial sector, especially in environmental engineering

Sea change
Successive steps led Mr Sham to concentrate more on marine conservation and he now heads up the division which oversees activities on the western side of Hong Kong. The daily routine inevitably involves a fair amount of paperwork, but his main duties are to help implement the environmental impact assessment (EIA) ordinance and monitor the impact of ecological changes on all marine creatures in his district.

"For every major development project, an EIA must be carried out and requires the contractor, developer or government to comply with current environmental legislation," Mr Sham explains. "We also conduct research projects and carry out extensive fieldwork to verify what is in the EIA reports." As a government body, the department can draw on considerable resources for conservation issues and even has a geographic information system (GIS) to track changes and patterns in the local ecosystem.

Aware of the need to undertake better environmental protection, the government has a conservation plan for ecologically important species like the Chinese white dolphin. This includes long-term monitoring, data analysis, education and promotion. There is also the EIA process which entails much public consultation and frequent meetings with environmental and special interest groups. For Mr Sham, this is a necessary part of the job, but also makes things constantly challenging. "If you gave me a choice, I would rather be out in a boat meeting dolphins," he laughs, adding that the distribution of dolphins is systematically monitored and their locations mapped.

Dolphin data
"Every week we carry out area surveys by boat or helicopter that include photo identification of dolphins for our database. We count and trace them and check any changes in their behaviour and habits. The more data we collect, the more we can understand the species."

Over the last nine years, the survey has found around 200 dolphins in Hong Kong waters during the winter months and about 1,500 in the whole Pearl River Delta. Even dead dolphins are studied for age, gender and cause of death in order to build up a complete picture.

According to Mr Sham, current job vacancies are only on non-civil service terms and the competition for such positions is fierce. A first or second-class degree in applied or natural sciences is a prerequisite and three years' work experience in a related field is also required. This, though, can be waived for anyone with a Master's or PhD qualification. On a positive note, similar openings in the commercial arena are becoming more common as private companies are now regularly hiring consultants to carry out ecological assessments.

People who are independent, proactive and outgoing are generally best suited for this type of work and, of course, they must have respect for the environment. During his own career Mr Sham has been particularly encouraged by the increase in environmental consciousness among the public. "If you believe in the importance of conservation, it is great to see your message getting through to so many people," he says.

China Opportunities

With the mainland's economy in good shape, the Chinese government is now paying much closer attention to environmental issues. Increasingly, construction companies are required to submit environmental assessments prior to development of a new site and municipal authorities are more actively promoting greater awareness of local conservation projects.
Consequently, Mr Sham believes there will be career opportunities in the commercial sector, especially in environmental engineering. Qualifications are important so those with a background in environmental management studies will have a distinct advantage.


Taken from Career Times 10 December 2004, p. 32
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