This Gorgeous Picture Spells Doom for Hong Kong's Sea Life


Look at this stuff — isn't it neat?

Kin Cheung/AP

Behold the wonders of Noctiluca scintillans, also known as the Sea Sparkle, a type of single-cell life that eats plankton and fish eggs, and, most importantly, produces an eerily beautiful glow when disturbed. Although N. scintillans can be found in coastal areas and estuaries around the world, this latest bloom has been discovered along the seashore of Hong Kong.

Shots of the bloom taken by Associated Press photographer Kin Cheung are breathtaking — and, for those who care about the safety of China's waterways, terrifying. 

But how could something nicknamed "Sea Sparkle" be bad?

Kin Cheung/AP

Sea Sparkle indicates that something is wrong in China's seaways. N. scintillans blooms are most frequently caused by agricultural pollution of coastal areas. More than half of China's water pollution comes from agricultural runoff: Fertilizer, pesticides and raw sewage waste carried by rainfall and snow melt into rivers, lakes, marshes, aquifers and the ocean. Nitrogen-rich fertilizer is the perfect food for N. scintillans and other algae-like water organisms, and its presence in coastal waters has led to massive blooms. In the summer of 2013, the largest algae bloom in Chinese history turned the Yellow Sea green and coated 11,158 square miles in sludge.

Getty Images

Pollution in China is no surprise. Westerners are used to seeing photos of Beijing residents strapped into smog masks, but non-point pollution (that is, redistributed pollution that can't be traced back to a single source) has had a pernicious effect on the quality of China's crops, air and waterways. 

"The plankton and Noctiluca become more abundant when nitrogen and phosphorous from farm run-off increase," the Associated Press' Seth Borenstein wrote. "Noctiluca's role as both prey and predator can eventually magnify the accumulation of algae toxins in the food chain."

China has become the world's largest producer and consumer of fertilizers and pesticides, according to China's Journal of Arid Land. Its enormous livestock population exacerbates the presence of nitrogen in its watershed: According to Wang Dong, a senior expert at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, China's livestock produce 90% of the organic pollutants and half of the nitrogen in China's water. 

"China is developing too rapidly," Wang told Circle of Blue. "It took Western countries 100 and more years to develop to this level — it took China 30 years. Our population is too big, and certain problems cannot be avoided when you have such big population."

Although N. scintillans isn't toxic, it produces high levels of ammonia, which kills off other aquatic life. This kind of bloom has contributed to massive dead zones, areas where the ocean has been so choked off by oxygen-eating, ammonia-excreting algaes that all animal life suffocates and dies, creating the oceanic equivalent of the Sahara Desert. It's not just in China, either: The American corn industry has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut.

Kin Cheung/AP

We've broken the ocean — but it's not too late. Through the 1960s, America's industrial waterways were environmental catastrophes. The Cuyahoga River caught on fire 13 times in the 20th century alone, as did rivers in Baltimore, Detroit, Buffalo and Philadelphia, according to the Washington Post. But with the passage of the Clean Water Act, as well as local initiatives, water polluters were held to higher standards and held responsible for their actions.

Although the chances for a Chinese version of the Clean Water Act are low, international pressure could make the difference. After all, N. scintillans doesn't know any boundaries — and it's already showing up on American shores.