- The shoreline of the Yellow Sea has been transformed dramatically over the last half-century as mudflats have been filled in with rock and soil, replacing dynamic, natural tidal zones with solid ground for ports, chemical plants and farmland.
- Losing the intertidal flats has proved devastating for the millions of shorebirds that funnel through the Yellow Sea during migration.
- In January, the Chinese government announced a sweeping package of reforms aimed at ending much of the land reclamation taking place on the mudflats.
- “Stunned joy” is how one bird conservationist described her reaction to news of the reforms, which she said could avert one of the biggest extinction crises facing migratory birds — if they work.
Zhang Lin spends much of his time with his right eye glued to a spotting scope, scanning the tidal flats of Rudong and other coastal regions of the Yellow Sea north of Shanghai for rare shorebirds.
The landscape is mostly gray, from the grayish-brown mud to the cold, gray sky above. Even the industrial development that dots the shoreline — chemical plants and towering wind turbines — are often shrouded in a grayish haze.
As a professional birdwatching guide and part-time conservationist, Zhang is well aware that the bleak tidal environment is teeming with bivalves, worms and other marine life that support flocks of shorebirds numbering in the tens of thousands during migration. And he is dedicated to the landscape, organizing amateur wildlife watchers to conduct annual bird surveys along the coast, sometimes wading in knee-deep mud to get close enough for accurate counts. But even Zhang concedes the scenery isn’t what he would call beautiful, at least not in the traditional sense.
“A lot of people think of the mudflats as wasteland,” Zhang told Mongabay. At low tide, only mud is visible from the shore. The edge of the water is far out of sight, beyond the horizon, as are the birds. “Most times of day, most times of year, it looks empty,” he said.
For decades, China’s coastal cities have viewed this landscape as something to be paved over and built upon. And build they have. The shoreline of the Yellow Sea has been transformed dramatically over the last half-century as the mudflats have been filled in with rock and soil, replacing dynamic, natural tidal zones with solid ground for ports, chemical plants and farmland, a practice known as land reclamation. In Jiangsu province, north of Shanghai, home to Rudong and the mudflats where Zhang conducted a shorebird census in March, local authorities have been accused of illegally approving 14 reclamation projects.
In 2014 scientists put numbers to the broader trend using satellite imaging, calculating that 28 percent of the Yellow Sea’s mudflats have disappeared since the 1980s. Historical maps suggest as much as two-thirds have been lost in the past five decades. The rate of decline in recent years has been on par with global rainforest loss.
Losing the intertidal flats has proved devastating for the millions of shorebirds that funnel through the Yellow Sea during migration, along what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Dozens of species, including the exceedingly rare and critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) and the endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer), depend on the mud as they fuel up midway through their 8,000-kilometer (5,000-mile) journey from breeding grounds in Arctic Russia and Alaska to warmer wintering grounds, in places like Australia, southern China and Southeast Asia. But as the mud has receded, so have the shorebirds.
Last year, researchers published a study in Nature Communications showing just how critical the Yellow Sea is as a stopover habitat for migrating birds, and how much all the reclamation has hurt them. “The short story is the more a shorebird relies on the Yellow Sea, the faster the rates of decline in the population,” said David Melville, a scientist with the New Zealand-based Miranda Naturalists’ Trust, who was not involved in the study.
But the tide may be turning for the birds. After years of exploitation, China’s attitude toward its intertidal ecosystem is shifting. In January, China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA), the agency tasked with environmental protection along the coast, announced a sweeping package of reforms aimed at ending much of the land reclamation taking place on the mudflats. The reforms apply nationwide, but will most greatly affect the Yellow Sea.
Among the changes, the central government has outlawed any “business-oriented” land reclamation and is stripping local governments of the power to authorize such projects, according to a report from China Daily. Already reclaimed land that has sat unused will be nationalized under the new rules.
The policy change comes on the heels of critical media coverage within China of ship-building and aquaculture within coastal nature reserves and an investigation by the SOA, which found local authorities in several provinces failed to properly monitor reclamation projects and enforce pollution rules.
News of the central government’s policy changes caught some in the conservation community off guard, including those who had been working on the issue. “Stunned joy” is how Nicola Crockford, principal policy officer at the NGO BirdLife UK, described her reaction. “It was really better than our wildest dreams,” Crockford said.
But China’s commitment has gone a step further. Last year, the country nominated 14 shorebird hotspots along the Yellow Sea and the adjacent Bohai Bay for the tentative list of World Heritage sites, a designation that would provide more extensive protections to the coastal habitats the birds depend on.
Exactly why the central government decided to take action now remains unclear. Conservationists and biologists working in the region say at least part of the reason can be attributed to the call by China’s leaders for more environmentally friendly policies at all levels of government, an effort to develop what President Xi Jinping has called an “ecological civilization.”
At a press conference in January about the new reclamation rules, the head of the SOA’s National Marine Inspection Office, Gu Wu, said the reason for the policy change was that illegal and irregular land reclamation projects have been troublesome for marine ecosystems and businesses, according to the China Daily report.
Pressure from a band of domestic and international conservationists may also have played a role. Scientists from New Zealand and Australia, including Melville, first began noticing declines in the shorebird species that overwinter in their countries. They have since teamed up with Chinese colleagues to create a new body of research on the shorebirds of the Yellow Sea and their disappearing habitat. The Paulson Institute, a think tank formed by Henry Paulson, a former U.S. treasury secretary, is influential in China and has been active on the issue as well, as have local birdwatching and conservation groups, including people like Zhang.
The international nature of the shorebirds’ migration has required that the conservation effort also be global. “We can’t just stick our heads in our own country and work on our own local wetlands,” said Jimmy Choi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, who has led bird survey trips on the mudflats of the Yellow Sea and published papers on the topic. “You do have to be collaborative here, which is good.”
But another factor that may have influenced the policy change is that reclamation wasn’t always as successful as it was billed to be. In areas off the coast of Jiangsu province, where local authorities have been illegally approving reclamation projects, much of the reclaimed land has remained deserted. According to the SOA’s own investigation there this summer, only 21 percent of land reclaimed between 2012 and 2017 had been developed.
As for whether the new rules on intertidal flats will result in changes on the ground, those working on the issue are hopeful. One of the more significant changes, they say, is that under the new rules local authorities will be held accountable for the ecological health of their communities. It used to be that a local government leader seeking to move up in the bureaucracy could make a splash by embarking on infrastructure projects. “Now Chinese officials will not be promoted if they cause environmental damage, so it completely changes the incentives for them,” Crockford said.
Combined, the new protections could avert one of the biggest extinction crises facing migratory birds across the globe, she said. While extensive reclamation in some areas around the Yellow Sea has left little to protect, there are regions that remain pristine.
One of those places is the Tiaozini mudflats, on the coast of Jiangsu north of Rudong, an area often described as the single most important site for the spoon-billed sandpiper, of which an estimated 228 breeding pairs remain in the wild. The provincial government has been planning to reclaim nearly 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of Tiaozini’s intertidal flats by 2020. If that happens, roughly one-third of the remaining spoon-billed sandpiper population on Earth could disappear, according to researchers. But the policy change could avert that.
“The province had incredibly bold plans for massive reclamations, which they have not yet fully achieved,” said Melville of the Miranda Naturalists’ Trust. “There are still large areas of intertidal flats there which I would hope would benefit from the new policy.”
Back on the mudflats of Rudong, just south of Tiaozini, Zhang is less celebratory of the central government’s new anti-reclamation policy and more concerned about reclaiming the reclaimed land. Unused seawalls need to be torn down and habitat should be restored, he said, although he is doubtful the government will have much interest in contributing funds to destroy something it recently spent money to build.
Another concern is the rapid spread of Spartina alterniflora, an introduced species of cord grass that grows in dense clumps and is often used in reclamation projects to solidify muddy expanses. “In many places they are no longer building seawalls, but the Spartina is growing out of control,” he said. The grass can take over a mudflat and make it difficult for shorebirds to forage. Zhang has heard of university students in Shanghai attempting to eradicate small patches of Spartina, but the government has no broader policy to deal with the grass.
Zhang last conducted a shorebird census in Rudong in March, when he and a partner tallied thousands of birds. But they also counted a number of new, small-scale reclamation projects taking place. Aquaculture ponds were being dug into the mud, likely for shrimp or sea cucumber cultivation, Zhang said.
Unlike reclamation projects for chemical factories or other industrial facilities, aquaculture development doesn’t involve pavement, parking lots or discharge pipes. While the ponds do disrupt the natural systems of tidal flats, they are less intrusive than heavy industry. And the earthen or rock berms that surround them are tolerable for shorebirds looking to roost at high tide. Finding a place to rest and digest is important for the birds after they feed on the flats in preparation for another leg of their journey.
In Rudong, Zhang said large-scale reclamation had mostly stopped in recent years, even before the central government’s policy banning new projects. His hunch is that local authorities lacked the finances. “Right now, the situation is still OK, I would say stable,” he said. The new policy should help keep it that way.
Murray, N.J., Clemens, R.S., Phinn, S.R., Possingham, H.P. and Fuller, R.A. (2014). Tracking the rapid loss of tidal wetlands in the Yellow Sea. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12(5): 267-272. https://doi.org/10.1890/130260.
Studds, C.E. et al. (2017). Rapid population decline in migratory shorebirds relying on Yellow Sea tidal mudflats as stopover sites. Nat. Commun. 8, 14895. doi: 10.1038/ncomms14895.
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