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As a child, Dr Allen To didn’t hike and he didn’t spend much time in the ocean. In fact, he wasn’t a very good swimmer, nor a very good student. No signs pointed to the fact that he would one day become World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong’s Manager of Oceans Sustainability.

His parents, who were both in the police force, seldom took him to the country parks, which was not unusual for local families at the time. But they loved nature documentaries, and the young Allen watched TV alongside them. ‘I think somehow, that kind of appreciation and love of nature built in my heart,’ he says.

As his curiosity for wildlife grew, so did his collection of exotic animals. He grew up in public housing in Kwai Chung, so he was never allowed dogs. But he still managed to get his hands on pet tarantulas, scorpions and birds – but no snakes. ‘My mum was super afraid of snakes, so I wasn't able to keep any,’ he chuckles.

And while he acknowledges that it was perhaps not the most ethical (or legal) way to learn about wildlife, as To says, ‘You have to work with what you have, right?’

Because of these early experiences, he chose to study environmental life sciences at the University of Hong Kong. He continued his studies at HKU and eventually got his PhD studying groupers, a local fish species that is well known here.

‘I had a feeling – really not very scientific – that they recognised me. Maybe they hated me because I put tags on their backs! But whenever I swam into that area, they just kind of came out and hovered in the water, looking at me.’

Most people in Hong Kong have an intimate relationship with fish too, albeit in a less emotional capacity: the city is the second-biggest consumer of seafood per capita in Asia, and seventh in the world. About half of the live seafood found in Hong Kong restaurants comes from unsustainable sources, and with the vast majority of seafood being imported, Hongkongers can have a major impact on fisheries beyond our own territory.

Left: Spotted sand-divers are a tiny distant cousin of sea bass and grouper. Right: Amblyeleotris japonica is part of a group that forms symbiotic relationships with shrimp and stays in touch through the shrimp’s antennae. Images by Allen To

To laments the way most Hongkongers relate to wildlife. He recalls going to Ocean Park and hearing aquarium-goers marvel at the tanks: ‘I’d hear people say, “wow, this a tasty fish”, or, “that one is an expensive fish”. They connect nature to restaurants.’

So educating the public has been a key project for WWF HK. But after talking to local restaurants, To realised that raising awareness amongst consumers wasn’t going to be enough.

Left: False kelpfish. Right: Longfin grouper. Images by Allen To

‘We understood that to make the change that we need, we need to work with the business sector to drive market change. And that's why starting in 2010, we’ve worked with major catering chains in Hong Kong to try to provide sustainable seafood, so that when consumers go out dining they’ll be presented with different options.’

Now, thanks in large part to campaigning by WWF HK and other organisations, restaurants make a point of providing sustainable seafood options. Some, such as Plat du Jour and The Continental, are advised by the WWF on their seafood options. Hotels are beginning to play their part too; restaurants at the Shangri-La hotels are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Café Gray Deluxe at The Upper House serves WWF- or ASC-designated sustainable seafood, and the appropriately named Fish Bar at the Marriott has turned a Hong Kong favourite on its head with a menu of vegetarian shark's fin dishes.

‘We in Hong Kong may not realise it, but we have a very unsustainable lifestyle,’ says To. ‘We’ve got used to a very convenient lifestyle, with plastic bags and straws. And if people can take a taxi or the MTR, they don't bother to walk.’ 

According to a WWF HK report, if everyone lived like we do in Hong Kong, it would take 3.9 Earths to sustain our consumption of natural resources. That puts the city at 17th in the world in terms of ecological footprint.

‘I think if we stepped back and relaxed a little bit, we can actually have an even more enjoyable life by buying less and by being less materialistic, and spending more time in nature rather than in shopping malls.’

One might wonder how To remains an optimist while fighting on the frontlines. But he retains hope for the future, pointing to the generational shift he’s noticed in Hong Kong.

‘Parents from my generation are relatively more open to taking their children to go out to nature,’ he observes. ‘When they travel overseas, more and more people go see nature – and don’t just go shopping.’

To believes that experience with the outdoors – especially early on in life – is key to a sustainable future: ‘If people started understanding and appreciating nature, there’d be fewer arguments – for example, about how we use our protected areas in Hong Kong – and it would change how we perceive the use of natural resources.’

Another source of hope is his scuba diving hobby: by spending time in pristine environments, he’s able to remember why he’s fighting so hard in Hong Kong. ‘I try to reconnect with nature, to see the impact of our work – or what would be the impact of us not doing anything,’ he explains. ‘Because we want these places to be here for generations to come.’

Dr To is a keen diver, and believes more people should explore Hong Kong’s waters. Image by Teresa Ma

And though To loves diving abroad, he spends his summer weekends in the waters of Hong Kong. He’s somehow able to find the time outside of work to run 114e, a citizen science project he founded with local environmentalist Stan Shea. The initiative, named for the latitude at which the city sits, recruits local divers to contribute records of the reef fish they encounter, thus creating a record of species that inhabit our seas. 114e has been a great success: they’ve found 11 species previously unrecorded in Hong Kong waters.

He encourages everyone to take up scuba diving: ‘If we never go diving, we miss out on seventy per cent of the planet – a big chunk of it.’ In particular, he wishes that Hongkongers would dive more in our own city, despite the poor visibility: ‘It’s our city. It’s where we live. You should dive here if you’re a diver. And if you can be a good diver in Hong Kong, you can dive anywhere.’

As part of its World Oceans Day campaign, WWF HK will be putting on a photo exhibition showcasing Hong Kong’s marine wildlife. But To hopes that the awareness lingers long after the day is over: ‘Because if we only care about the ocean on one day, there will be no future for the ocean.’

World Oceans Day is on 8 June. You can find more information on the WWF’s oceans work here