China’s Coral Crisis

Coral abundance around mainland China and Hainan Island has declined by at least 80 percent over the past 30 years. Can anything be done to stop this trend?

AsianScientist (Jan. 28, 2013) – HAINAN, the South China Sea. Below the water, a lost civilization lies in ruin. Vast columns of rock rest on mounds of rubble. At its peak, the structures would have housed millions of inhabitants. Now, algae have crept across the landscape, smothering the remains in a cloak of brown fuzz. A lone fish darts up to the surface, and then disappears. All is silent.

This desolate scene is what has become of China’s coral reefs.

Southeast Asian coral reefs are endowed with the highest levels of biodiversity for the world’s marine ecosystems, with over 600 of 800 reef-building coral species, and more than 3,000 species of fish. From the squat, enigmatic frogfish to the majestic manta ray, the reefs are a living wonderland. But the halcyon days are over.

According to the results of an international scientific study led by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Center for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, coral abundance around mainland China and Hainan Island has declined by at least 80 percent over the past 30 years.

This grim reality is part of a wider environmental crisis in China. Decades of unrestrained expansion have yielded the world’s second largest economy, which has grown tenfold since 1978. The cost: widespread pollution and ecological destruction. 200 million tons of sewage and industrial waste inundated China’s rivers and lakes in 2004, leaving 70 percent polluted.

With 1,354,040,000 consumers of water, energy, and food, the pressure on the country’s tired lands shows no signs of relenting. This is not to mention the giant’s contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate change. A report by the Council of Foreign Relations pins the collateral on a focus on GDP.

“Economic development at breakneck speed has led to widespread environmental degradation,” the report says.

Will China’s coral reefs recover?

Chinese coastal communities rely on coral reefs for food, income, and even building materials, a dependence that was maintained sustainably for thousands of years. However, the recent industrialization of China – and an unprecedented population explosion which has occurred in tandem – has disrupted the dynamic of this coexistence and led to widespread over-exploitation.

To compound the problem, 60 percent of the country’s population lives in coastal provinces. Along China’s 18,000 kilometers of continental coastline, population densities range from 110 to 1,600 per square kilometers.

The increased population, the development of cash economies and large scale markets, and a penchant for fish, has led to an unsustainable demand for marine resources. Overfishing is rampant, with ecosystem-wide consequences.

Hard corals, which comprise colonies of tiny organisms (polyps) encased in a calcium carbonate skeleton, are the foundation of coral reef ecosystems. However, the corals have competitors – macro algae, which are usually kept in check by herbivorous reef fish. Removing the fish leaves the system out of balance, and marks the transition from an ecosystem dominated by coral to one dominated by algae. Once tipped, the transformation is notoriously difficult to reverse.

What can be done?

China’s current environmental issues are strikingly similar to those faced by Australia in the 1970s.

Rapid industrialization had left Australian cities polluted, and led to widespread environmental degradation. Increasing public anxiety over the state of the environment, coupled with fierce opposition to coral mining proposals, led to the establishment of the Great Barrier Marine Park in 1975. The park has become an international conservation icon, and was recently expanded to 345,000 square kilometers, or five times the size of Tasmania.

Coral mining, which involves the removal of dead and living coral from a reef for use as building materials, is particularly damaging. In a 1996 study on coral mining in Indonesia, researchers estimated that for every US$10 net profit, there was a loss of US$245 through diminished fisheries, coastal protection, and tourism. Amazingly, this activity is still common in China; the use of stony coral for limestone has been known for several decades in Xuwen, Guangdong province.

In Australia, pressure from the general public forced the government to act. There is some evidence that this may be on the horizon in China. In 2006, the Chinese government received 600,000 environment-related complaints. In 2011, mass protests were held against a paraxylene (PX) chemical plant in Dalian, followed by rallies against developments in Shifang and Qidong. The government recognized the threat to central authority, and in all cases, the regional governments succumbed to a compromise. Is this a new paradigm for progress in China?

Measures have even been taken to protect coral reefs. In 1998, the government issued the Hainan Province Regulation of Coral Reef Protection act, which prohibits coral mining, blast and cyanide fishing, coral and shell collection, and the establishment of waste outflows into coral reef marine reserves.

Enforcement of policies remains difficult

However, the recent ARC report highlights that thus far, the effects of the changes are intangible. Ma Jun, an award-winning Chinese environmentalist and journalist and a director with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, wrote in an article for the BBC, “We have created laws and regulations but the enforcement remains too weak and environmental lawsuits are still very difficult to file. Regulatory failings mean that the cost of breaking the law is far below that of obeying it.”

Territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia over the ownership of islands in the South China Sea may have left many countries in Southeast Asia reluctant to invest in conservation, making any cohesive policy-making difficult to implement.

The glacial uptake of environmental policy in China has left many wondering when the superpower will have an environmental awakening. In 2004, Pan Yue, then deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said the problems had begun to threaten economic performance, and announced a new era of environmental protection.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the ecosystem damage costs China nine percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) every year. There is more than a little irony in this. China’s economic boom has tainted its environment. Let’s hope it will now provide the impetus for recovery.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Zaria Gorvett is a freelance science writer based in the UK. She graduated with a bachelors degree in biological science from the University of Exeter, UK and a masters degree in medical microbiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist