China’s massive, unbridled economic expansion has seriously imperiled its coral reefs, shrinking them by 80 percent in the past 30 years, a team of Australian and Chinese researchers have found.
The study, conducted by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence and the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, is the first comprehensive one of its kind to examine coral reefs along mainland China and in the South China Sea.
The reefs’ condition is described as a “grim picture of decline, degradation, and destruction resulting from coastal development, pollution and overfishing” in the study.
The destruction is so widespread that there are no easy solutions to the problem. “China’s ongoing economic expansion has exacerbated many wicked environmental problems, including widespread habitat loss due to coastal development, unsustainable levels of fishing, and pollution,” write the study authors.
“A wicked problem is one that is very hard to solve without having a whole lot of other foreseen and unforeseen consequences to people, industries and to the environment itself,” said research leader Professor Terry Hughes in a press release.
Surveys in the South China Sea found that coral cover near offshore atolls and archipelagos claimed by six countries has declined from more than 60 percent to around 20 percent in the past 10 to 15 years.
“So far, climate change has affected these reefs far less than coastal development, pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices. Ironically, these widespread declines in the condition of reefs are unfolding as China’s research and reef-management capacity are rapidly expanding,” reads the study.
Corals in the South China Sea cover some 30,000 square kilometers (about 11,500 square miles), and support the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishers.
“Typically, when a coral reef degrades it is taken over by seaweeds–and from there, experience has shown, it is very hard to return it to its natural coral cover,” Hughes continued. “The window of opportunity to recover the reefs of the South China Sea is closing rapidly, given the state of degradation revealed in this study.”
China and other countries have set up marine parks to conserve the reefs, but Hughes noted that they are too small to stop the decline.The massive loss of reefs is just another adverse effect of China’s meteoric growth over the past 30 years, which has caused large tracts of the country to become polluted. China’s air, water, and land pollution is among the worst in the world, with the central city of Linfen often described as the “world’s most polluted.”
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