Chinese Government Puts the Brakes on Reclamation of Shorebird Habitat

By Marc Devokaitis
April 2, 2018
Bar-tailed Godwits in China. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.In the 1950s, 1.2 million hectares of Yellow Sea mudflats provided key stopover habitat for migratory shorebirds like these Bar-tailed Godwits. Today, reclamation projects in China and South Korea have cut that number to 400,000 hectares. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The Yellow Sea is the hub in the middle of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway— the grand migratory bird highway of the Eastern Hemisphere that stretches from Australia to Siberia, and even to far western Alaska. Since the 1950s, more than 50 percent of China’s intertidal shorebird habitats along the Yellow Sea coast have been dredged and filled, as rapid economic development fueled a boom in tidal flat reclamation projects. But the tide might now be turning for shorebirds, as the Chinese government announced in January that it will halt business-oriented coastal land reclamation “in the strictest-ever control over reclamation,” according to China’s State Oceanic Administration.

On the website of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Gu Wu, head of the National Marine Inspection Office, said that “illegal and irregular reclamation activities caused a number of problems to marine ecosystems” and “have become a major public concern.”

The restriction on tidal habitat destruction is great news for the 25 species of migratory shorebirds that travel the East Asian–Australasian Flyway and are showing steep and troubling population declines. Far Eastern Curlews have suffered more than 80 percent population loss in the last decade due to Yellow Sea habitat loss. Spoon-billed Sandpipers have become one of the world’s most endangered species, with fewer than 500 individuals left.

Far Eastern Curlew by Ricardo Bitran via BirdshareA Far Eastern Curlew stands among smaller Whimbrels. These curlews have suffered more than 80 percent population loss in the last decade. Photo by Ricardo Bitran via Birdshare.
Spoon-billed Sanpiper by Natthaphat Chotjuckdikul/Macaulay LibrarySpoon-billed Sandpipers have become one of the world’s most endangered species, with fewer than 500 individuals left. Photo by Natthaphat Chotjuckdikul/Macaulay Library.

The Chinese government’s announcement stated that future reclamation projects would be restricted to those that pertain to infrastructure, public welfare, or national defense, so it remains to be seen exactly how these new policies will play out along the Yellow Sea coast. But conservationists are hopeful.

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“Since the policy measures [affect] the whole coastal region of China, it is obvious that all bird species using China’s coastal wetlands as their habitats will benefit,” said Rose Niu, chief conservation officer for the Paulson Institute, a think tank founded by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson to strengthen U.S.–China relations.

“Chinese top leadership were informed about the rapid decline of the biodiversity and ecosystems in the coastal region … and clear instruction was made from the top leadership to improve the situation,” Niu said. “The measures are very comprehensive and very strict…many reclamation projects which are not in line with the rules will be stopped immediately, so it is a great win for conservation already.”