In Hong Kong, continuing population increase, economic growth and fast urban and infrastructure developments have exacerbated the already polluted inshore waters and exerted an unprecedented pressure on the coastal environment. Coral, seagrass and other marine habitats have been adversely affected and estimated fisheries loss has exceeded US$ 26 million. As a compromise between the rapid urban expansion and sustainable development of the coastal environment, a long-term strategy for the protection of the marine environment has been introduced on the basis of the 'Beneficial Uses' approach. Coastal habitats are classified in terms of their ecological, economic and scientific importance, and priority of protection assigned according to their relative importance, beneficial uses and susceptibility to pollution. Although not entirely satisfactory, this approach miniraises major conflicts between different beneficial uses and the impact of developments on sensitive coastal areas. It affords realistic protection to vital coastal resources under the enormous pressure of rapid urban development. Copyright © 1998 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.