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September 20, 2014

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Coastal development wiping out fish, birds

FOR the past 20 years, Sun Kang has always gone fishing early on the first day of the new fishing season in the Bohai Sea, off the coast of northeastern China.

But he’s not optimistic about the harvest in the next few months. The commercial fisherman with two decades of experience has witnessed sharply declining numbers of marine products within the past 10 years. He does not expect much change this year.

“It used to be a piece of cake to earn several hundred thousand yuan annually by fishing here, but now I just wish that I could at least earn some money,” says Sun.

As an experienced fisherman in Erjiegou Town of Panjin City in Liaoning Province, Sun thinks he knows the problem: Grand reclamation projects since 2005 to help develop the region are a major reason for the fishermen’s loss in recent years.

Sun says a great deal of seashore in his town was transformed into highway, modern harbor and chemical industrial park.

“Can you expect fish coming to the offshore near a chemical factory? Of course not,” says Sun.

Additionally, far fewer water birds are showing up in the region. Empty boats nearby used to be covered by water birds seeking leftover fish, but now only a few can be seen.

Jing Wei Tian Hai, a story about a bird trying to fill the sea with pebbles, promotes dogged determination even if it ends up in vain. But reclaiming land from the sea is a widespread reality in China, and the resulting environmental destruction has some people taking notice.

Under a goal of “developing toward the sea,” about 45 square kilometers of new land has been claimed from the sea since 2005 as part of the Panjin Coastal Economic Zone in Liaoning Province. About 15 kilometers of natural coastline was taken, while a new artificial coastline of 112 kilometers was formed.

Most of the intertidal zones within the region have been replaced by harbors, factories and aquafarms, leaving very limited space for the original dwellers like benthic animals and water birds.

This is far from the only land that China has taken and continues to take from the sea.

According to a research by Professor Su Jilan and his team at the Second Institute of Oceanography (SOA) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, more than 12,000 square kilometers of land was reclaimed from the sea in China by the end of the 20th century, and another 5,000 square kilometers was accomplished from 2006 to 2010.

Great loss

The research shows that about 1,000 square kilometers of sea is reclaimed each year, an area nearly the size of Hong Kong. Perhaps more tellingly, half of all coastal wetlands in China had already disappeared by 2010.

The intertidal zone of the Huanghai and Bohai seas suffered the greatest loss among all regions evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for a research project on the intertidal zones in South and East Asia in 2012.

“Though looking less attractive than a sandy beach, the abundant mud beach at the coastline of Bohai and Huanghai is much more valuable for ecosystem,” says Zhou Haixiang, director of the Ecology Lab at Shenyang Ligong (Polytechnic) University.

It provides a friendly habitat for water plants, fish, aquatic birds and bottom-dwelling creatures, and it’s also an important stop for migratory birds.

But the quickly disappearing wetlands, especially at the Huanghai and Bohai seas, already pose a great threat to migratory birds.

There are eight main bird-migration routes in the world, with three of them going through China. One is the Asia-Australia migration route, which involves 368 species.

“At least 33 of the 155 water bird species traveling in the route are in serious danger due to both hunting and damaged wetlands. And 24 of those endangered inhabit mainly the coastal land in China,” says Fan Zhiyong, director of the species program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) China.

He and others say the reclamation projects progressing at enormous speed in China are definitely a major reason.

To avoid further damage to the migratory birds’ habitat, the IUCN in 2012 urged all countries to stop reclamation work in intertidal zones before an evaluation of the biodiversity needs in the Asia-Australia migration route could be completed.

The Chinese National Bureau of Oceanography also released a notice that included a plan to strengthen regulation on reclaiming land from the sea. But in some areas, it’s just too late.

According to Zhou, who recently spent months researching along the coastline of the Huanghai and Bohai seas, few natural coastlines are left except for the limited regions at the estuaries where it is hard to carry out land reclamation.

Transforming land along the sea into economic zones is not the only threat to the birds, according to Zhou. A vast array of aquafarms along the Liaodong Peninsula also robs water birds of much of their habitat.

Sea cucumber aquafarms covering an area of 80,000 mu (about 5,360 hectares) have been established since late last century at the Liaohe River Estuary in Panjin City. Locals have found that this sea product brings them much more economic benefit than raising fish or shrimp — other commonly farmed sea animals.

Though no new aquafarms have been created there since 2000 when the state put strict regulations on them, there are still expansions of existing farms, involving more reclaiming of the intertidal zone.

A watchman at a sea cucumber farm says that all the sea cucumber ponds were developed from a mud beach. He admits that he sees far fewer water birds with the expansion of sea cucumber ponds.

“There also used to be many seals here, but they cannot get aboard now with the sea cucumber ponds replacing the beach,” says the watchman.

According to Zhou’s research, almost the entire coastline of Liaodong Peninsula that was not transformed into land for industrial use has been taken by sea cucumber aquafarms.

Some people argue that the sea products raised in aquafarms also provide food for migrant birds. But that idea is challenged by Ma Zhijun, associate professor at the Life Science School of Fudan University.

“Though some water birds may get shrimp and fish when related aquafarms release water, few water birds can get benefit from sea cucumber. The water in the ponds required for raising sea cucumber is too deep for water birds to inhabit,” says Ma.

Another threat to the ecosystem posed by aquafarms is their widespread use of chemicals. It is a quite common practice for the sea cucumber raisers to poison other creatures in the ponds to ensure sufficient food for the sea cucumber, according to Ma. Other chemicals like antibiotics and hormone additives are also widely used.

Only in the last 10 years has the ecological problem bought by reclamation projects been recognized by Chinese, as little research had been done before, says Su of SOA. And though the central government has tried to regulate reclamation by setting laws in recent years, few significant changes have taken place, as local governments find ways to take advantage of loopholes.

For example, projects involving reclaiming land of more than 50 hectares and enclosing sea of more than 100 hectares must be approved by the State Council before implementation, as written in the Law on the Administration of the Use of Sea Areas. However, simply by breaking up the areas into smaller chunks for project application, the local government can again gain the decision.


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