At first glance, coastal mudflats can seem grim and desolate places with little obvious economic value. It is therefore not surprising that these areas have often been considered by planners, and the public, to be suitable for reclamation projects and development.
Over the past 50 years in China, 60% of temperate coastal ecosystems, 73% of mangroves and 80% of coral reefs have been lost mostly due to economic development. Only 24% of coastal wetlands have been legally designated as protected areas, much lower than the mean wetland protection rate of 43.5% across China, and coastal wetlands in China’s most economically developed provinces/municipalities – such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Tianjin, and Shandong – are hot targets for development projects.
This rapid development has not come without costs. Thanks to studies such as the Blueprint for Coastal Wetlands in China, we now know that many of the decisions to develop these coastal areas have neglected the significant benefits of wetlands – so called ecosystem services – including helping to prevent and mitigate flooding and storm surges, regulating climate change by storing carbon, purifying water and providing sustainable livelihoods for local people, as well as providing invaluable habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere. Such ‘natural capital’ is not reflected on most countries’ balance sheets but, nevertheless, its erosion undermines the ability to achieve sustainable economic growth.
One of the six recommendations contained in the Blueprint was the need to carry out publicity and education activities about wetland conservation, raising awareness and involving the public in protecting coastal wetlands and migratory birds.
That is why, this week, the Wetland Conservation and Management Office of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration in partnership with the Paulson Institute, the Lao Niu Foundation and the Mangrove Conservation Foundation, launched a new project to set up Wetland Education Centres across China.
The project, due to run for three years, will draw on national and international best practice, including from Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, Guandu Nature Reserve in Taiwan and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore as well as wetlands in Japan, Korea and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves in the UK.
The objectives are to establish:
A standard system for wetland education centres in China
Three to five demonstration wetland education centres within three years
A professional network for wetland education centres in China and to provide support for the establishment and development of further wetland education centres
This project will help build and strengthen public awareness about the value of China’s remaining coastal wetlands and underpins the recent announcement by the Chinese government to ban all further commercial land reclamation along the coast.
Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University delivered a comprehensive overview of wetlands in China and it was great to see Chris Rostron of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) addressing the meeting to relay some of their experience in bringing wetland education to the public.
It’s heartening to see China’s top level policy announcements being backed up by the less high-profile but arguably more important, initiatives on the ground to raise awareness about the value of wetlands and the need to protect them.
And it’s not only in China that the value of wetlands is being recognised. At the end of August, the government in Sri Lanka approved recommendations to protect and restore the urban wetlands of the capital, Colombo, after a study by The World Bank and WWT Consulting showed that benefits included:
Flood damage mitigation (without the wetlands, it was modelled that a 1 in 100 years flooding event could happen every year)
The wetlands provided cooling for the city of up to 5 degrees Celsius in the summer
Providing a home for >250 species of wildlife, including the endangered Fishing Cat
Air and water pollution mitigation
Food security for the urban poor
Places for recreation, education and tourism
In total, these benefits were calculated to be worth 8.8 million RS (GBP 41,500, USD 54,000, CNY 370,000) per hectare per year.
On 28 August the Sri Lankan cabinet approved the recommendations and will designate the remaining wetlands as protected areas as well as setting up a dedicated management body to ensure they are managed effectively. What a great example!
Protecting the Yellow Sea is the highest conservation priority in East Asia. Coastal wetlands in China are facing massive pressure from economic development and, over the past 50 years, the country has lost more than 60 percent of its natural coastal wetlands.
As readers of this website will know from articles here, here and here, there has been a huge national and international effort to try to conserve what remains of the incredibly rich intertidal mudflats on which millions of shorebirds, including the charismatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, depend.
Earlier this year, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
Just a few months later, in mid-June, came another step forward. The Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province. Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well. The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.
Under the terms of the MoU, the four parties will work closely to conserve and manage the site, and will establish a provincial nature reserve (PNR) at Nanpu wetland within the 12 months.
Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make Nanpu Wetland one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank. Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here. Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of 22 species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.
Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems. Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.
According to the MoU, The Paulson Institute and WWF will provide best domestic and international nature reserve construction and management practices in the process of planning, approving, building, and managing Nanpu Wetland Nature Reserve, so as to build, protect and manage it in an effective and efficient manner.
Let’s hope this initiative is the first of many and that more Provincial and local governments along the Yellow Sea coast will follow this example and work to protect the remaining intertidal mudflats in their regions. There is no doubt that the Yellow Sea is a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and it has the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country.
Finally, if you would like to experience the astonishing Yellow Sea migration for yourself, contribute to the conservation effort and you’re free this November, you’re in luck! One of the most hard-working and impressive domestic organisations working to protect the Yellow Sea intertidal mudflats – local NGO, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBS in China) – is running the second of its special birding tours to the Yellow Sea coast this autumn. Showcasing the global importance of this coastline, the tour will focus on some of the most endangered and unique birds of the region, including Spoonie. It will be led by some of China’s finest young conservationists and bird guides and 10 per cent of the participation fee will go directly to support local conservation NGOs in China. Background about the first trip, this spring, can be found here. And here’s a summary of the November trip:
Dates: November 2 to November 17 (16 days)
Sites: Shanghai, Jiangsu coast, Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, Poyang Lake Nature Reserve, Dongzhai Nature Reserve, Yancheng Nature Reserve.
Yellow Sea coast: Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Black- faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill and over 200 migratory shorebirds and forest birds.
Wuyuan: Scaly-sided Merganser, Scimitar Babblers, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, and other forest birds including Pied Falconet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-billed Starling, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut Bulbul, Grey-headed Parrotbill etc.
Poyang Lake NR: Siberian Crane, Baer’s Pochard and Geese of all kinds
Dongzhai NR: Reeves’s Pheasant and the reintroduced Crested Ibis.
Yancheng NR: Red-crowned Crane, Japanese Reed Bunting and Baikal Teal
The tour will be led by China Coastal Waterbird Census Team surveyors who have been working as volunteers for over 10 years.
For more details on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there is a downloadable PDF and, for further questions, you can contact Li Jing, leader of SBS in China, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wish I could join!
Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi, one of the guides for the November Yellow Sea tour.
This is big news. The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.
Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site. Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.
The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air. It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.
Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally. Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.
A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO. Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.
With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.
There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites. Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.
The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay. Now, wouldn’t that be something?!
We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK. My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.
As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone. The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners. The parallel with the shorebirds was striking. Take the Bar-tailed Godwit. One population of this specieswinters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean. According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days! Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!
Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today. And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea). The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
So what is the reason for the decline? Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea. Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.
The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations. The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP. Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities. However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land. So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture. The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture. In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule. And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts. With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.
So, what can be done? Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control. That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness. There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.
In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea. The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries. Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds. Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway. That must be a good thing.
More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments. Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help. Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway. The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public. And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea. These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.
Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team. Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups. At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.
The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril. Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.
Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?
References and resources:
BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo. See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396
BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8
Saemangeum on Birds Korea. See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml
Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469
The Paulson Institute Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China, 2015. See URL: http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/news/2015/10/19/paulson-institute-and-chinese-partners-publish-blueprint-of-coastal-wetland-conservation-and-management-in-china/
Global Flyway Network: see URL: http://globalflywaynetwork.com.au/
East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP): See URL: http://www.eaaflyway.net/