Stemming the Tide of Shorebird Losses
With migrations that can span thousands of miles, Pacific shorebirds are among nature's most amazing aerialists. But without crucial stopover habitat along their way, they could be doomed.
Both China and South Korea see land reclamation as a path to quick financial returns. “Urbanization [in China] is much more intense than just a decade ago, and 70 percent of gross domestic product now relies on infrastructure construction,” says Wang Songlin, a marine program officer for WWF China.
In a controversial move, the Chinese central government unleashed a $649 billion stimulus package in 2008 to spur the economy—with matching funds of an additional $1.6 trillion from provincial governments. “Most of the money has gone into infrastructure construction,” says Wang. Several new projects in Bohai Bay have been approved, including a second deep-sea port, which are likely to encroach on residual mudflats in Luannan. Even in the Yalu Jiang estuary—a dedicated national nature reserve and a key staging site for bar-tailed godwits, dunlins, and other shorebirds and water birds—the boundary of the core protection zone has been redrawn twice to give way to development projects.
To Wang, most such projects across China are totally unsustainable and serve only to boost the local GDP and careers of government officials in the short term. Indeed, many reclamation projects, including the Saemangeum, are put on hold or even abandoned after mudflats are filled because of a lack of further investment. “The likely outcome is that the environment is destroyed, with little real benefit to the economy,” he says.
Yet there are glimmers of hope. Yin Xikun, a senior member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, is lobbying the central government to protect the residual tidal flats in Bohai Bay—the first elected leader to do so. And at least one multinational corporation is making strides to safeguard habitat in the area. Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Group, the largest supplier of coal and iron ore in Bohai Bay, is negotiating with the local government about setting up a wetland visitor center near Luannan. The company, the only corporate member in the EAAF Partnership, is committed to sustainable development and having a net positive impact on biodiversity. “The visitors’ center will give local communities access to theses still-wild places, and build awareness about the importance of conserving them,” says Yang.
Meanwhile, the forestry bureau of Hebei province, with support from the Tangshan city government, is evaluating whether to set aside parts of the Luannan coastline as a provincial nature reserve—partly because of advocacy by the EAAF Partnership, the Wetlands International-China program, and WWF China. “It remains to be seen where the boundary lies and whether it’s big enough to make a difference,” says Watkins.
And developers may soon face more hurdles: 189 signature countries of the United Nations’ Millennium Declaration—including China and South Korea—have agreed, starting in 2015, to base development projects on this precautionary principle: If an action has the suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, the onus of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. “This should shift the burden of proof significantly,” says Moores. At the moment, the lack of scientific certainty that the loss of tidal flats can cause an irreversible decline in shorebird populations is the developers’ common argument to justify their destructive behavior. Such efforts might be the only fighting chance for those amazing trans-Pacific long-range migrants whose survival depends on the Yellow Sea.
Jane Qiu is a writer in Beijing. Her work is regularly featured in publications including Nature, Science, and The Economist.
What You Can Do
Support the organizations working on the ground to conserve vital shorebird habitat along the Yellow Sea, or those that sponsor studies in the region. Receive updates from, make donations to, or even volunteer with these groups: Birds Korea; Global Flyway Network; Australian Wader Studies Group; BirdLife Australasia; Miranda Naturalists’ Trust; Netherlands Society for the Protection of Birds; WWF Netherlands; WWF China; and the International Crane Foundation.
Shorebirds Flock to the Yellow Sea During Migration, Even As Habitat Disappears [nid:152676]