Wednesday, February 27, 2013

China’s ocean and coastal areas sustainable development is a strategic issue constraining the further planned development of the country

Figure 1 : More than 5,500 km2 of water in the Bohai Sea have been polluted by oil spilled at the CNOOC Penglai 19-3 oilfield since June 2011, causing the country's worst offshore maritime pollution See

China’s marine jurisdiction includes temperate, subtropical and tropical areas crossing 38 degrees of latitude with 18,000 km of continental coastline.

China’s ocean and coastal environments offer countless habitats of biological and genetic diversity providing a wealth of ecosystem services such as fishery catches, nutrient recycling, detoxification and shoreline protection.

In East and Southeast Asia, the best performing countries for the length of their coastline in relation to their population are Japan and ASEAN, which are comprising  many islands and then, far behind, China and India which are large continental and populous countries.

Under these conditions, the conservation and enhancement of a relatively narrow maritime coastline for its huge population, is for China an important strategic issue.

Besides access to seaways, fisheries and mineral resources, the conservation of the biological productive capacity of sea and the impacts of global warming are considerable challenges for the well-being of the huge coastal Chinese population.

China’s oceanic and marine coastal organization- Adjacent coastal urban regions

The following Figures 2 and 3 show the coastline and the four Chinese adjacent sea locations: Bohai Sea (77,000km2), Yellow Sea (380,000 km2), East  China Sea (1,249,000 km2) and South China Sea (3,500,000 km2).

China’s coastline is more than 30,000 km long, on which 18,000 km of continental coastline and more than 12,000 km of island coastline. 

The bio capacity of sea is mostly located along the continental coastline due to the discharge of nutrient and other bio element brought by the main rivers.

Figure 2 shows the watershed of the 3 main rivers from South to North: Zhujiang (Pearl River), Changiang (Yangtze River) and Huanghe (Yellow River) and their discharge points into the South China, East China, Yellow and Bohai Seas.

Figure 2 : China’s coastline and their adjacent four seas

The following Figure 2 highlights the Bohai sea situation: the 3 main bays and the 6 river estuaries (Huanghe, Haihe, Luanhe, Dalinghe, Shuangtaizhe and Liaohe rivers). The Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea, is one of the busiest seaways of the world and contains significant oil and gas reserves, providing much of China's offshore production. Bohai is a half-closed sea with comparatively low self-clean ability due to limited water exchange with the outside.

Figure 3 : Chinese Bohai Sea

As explained in my post dated 23 Oct. 2012, China has an urban coastal ribbon formed from 11 adjacent coastal highly developed regions, which have brought with them both population density and urbanization.

This urban coastal region accounts now for 60 % of Chinese GDP and 90% of its imports and exports and is seeing an increasing concentration of industrial activities. Though China’s coastal region constitutes only 13% of its total landmass, more than 525 bil people or 40% of the Chinese population live in this area. 

The Current Status of Chinese Coastal Environments is grim: the last 5 years have seen increased pollution pressure on coastal water marine environments

Land-based pollution is a key factor in the decline of conditions in China’s ocean and coasts. During the past 10 years, the volume of pollutants carried by river discharge has steadily increased.

The highest discharged pollutants are from agricultural sources (44%), domestic sources (37%), and industrial sources (19%). They include chemical oxygen demand, ammonia nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, petroleum products, volatile phenols, and heavy metals. 

River monitoring results for the period 2002-2009, show that pollutants carried to the sea by the major rivers increased by 121.3% and reached up to 13.67 mil tons by 2009. The Changjiang (Yangtze) River and Zhujiang (Pearl) River contribute to about 70% of China’s total pollution runoff into the sea.

Pollution grade classification is defined in relation with the requirement of the various types of water ecosystems. China uses a five-grade classification scheme for marine water quality. Grade I & II are the best: grade I is required for sea fisheries, marine reserves or protected areas, grade II for aquaculture, sea bath, sport and marine entertainments. Grade III and IV are admitted respectively for general industrial coastal areas, port and marine development. The fifth grade is the worst: the water quality being less than grade IV. 

From Figure 4, 5 and 6 below, we see that water quality had dramatically decreased since 2005. In 2011, polluted offshore waters - classified Grade III, IV and worse- covered approximately 100,000km2, accounting for over half of China’s total coastal marine areas. These polluted water areas had increased by 50% during the last 6 years.  The best quality Grade I, covered only 45,000km2 and less than 25% of total with almost no Grade I water in Bohai Sea. Grade I and II areas had steadily dwindled since 2005.

Figure 4 : China marine coastal water quality in 2011

As seen in Figure 5 below, the polluted areas are mainly concentrated in large estuaries and bays, including in Bohai sea (Liaodong, Bohai  & Laizhou bays), Yellow sea (Jiaozhou Bay) , East China sea (Jiangsu coast, Yangtze Delta, Hangzhou Bay & Xiangshan Harbour) and South China sea (Pearl River Estuary). 

Figure 5 : 2011 China marine coastal water quality diagram distribution  

Limited waste treatment has placed great pressure on the marine environment. The above mentioned polluted areas are largely the most developed coastal areas within China, and the developmental strategy of “treatment after pollution” is one of the main reasons for the serious environmental problems.

Figure 6 : Evolution of overall marine water quality 2005-2011

Damage to the health of marine ecosystems

Due to the rapid development of marine industries and the coastal economy during the past three decades, coastal ecosystems and their habitats have been under significant threat and have deteriorated.  Existing marine legislation remains much weaker than similar terrestrial environmental conservation legislation. 

Pollution, large-scale reclamation, and the invasion of exotic aquatic species have caused significant damage in coastal wetlands.

China has lost 57% of its coastal wetlands, 73% of its mangroves, and 80% of its coral reefs since the 1950's. Two-thirds of the coasts are under the threat of coastal erosion and the reduction of marine biological diversity.

A new study from Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, published in the journal Conservation Biology describes the situation as a ‘wicked problem’ – meaning it has no easy solutions.

The corals of the South China Sea region cover an area of 30,000 km2, have high conservation values, and support the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishers. The fact that some reefs are claimed by several different countries makes conservation and management particularly difficult.

“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. 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”.

“We found that coral abundance has declined by at least 80% over the past 30 years on coastal fringing reefs along the Chinese mainland and adjoining Hainan Island. 

On offshore atolls and archipelagos claimed by 6 countries in the South China Sea, coral cover has declined from an average of >60% to around 20% within the past 10–15 years,” it says.

Increasing prevalence of marine hazards

Since the 1990s, ecological disasters caused by harmful algae blooms (HAB) and jellyfish blooms have been frequently recorded in China’s seas causing direct economic losses of nearly 2 bil yuan.

The frequency and scale of red tides significantly increased since the late 1990's. On 2007-2011: the registered yearly average is 65 red tides reaching an accumulated area of 11,000 km2 each year.

A large-scale green tide occurred for the first time in 2007, and has reappeared every year thereafter. During 2009-2011 in China’s Yellow Sea the distribution area was 26,000- 58,000 km2 with and actual coverage of 500- 2,100 km2.

Since 2000, the biomass of giant jellyfish has been increasing and since these ingest large amounts of zooplankton, they rob fish of their food supply.

From 4 June to 12 July 2011, three undersea oilspills of long duration occurred in CNOOC Penglai 19-3 oilfield resulting in a large discharge of crude oil and oil-based mud causing serious pollution to the Bohai Sea ecological environment.  Plankton species and marine life were damaged by petroleum content in Tangshan in Hebei Province, Qinhuangdao port in Shandong peninsula, and Liaoning Province. The oilspills contaminated first class sea water quality of about 6,200km2.

The oil spill was not publicly reported until 31 days later on July 5, 2011, and was only revealed because of a public microblog tip-off. Further criticism followed that the spilled oil flow into the Yellow Sea may damage both North Korea and South Korea; media from those countries  have complained about Beijing being as irresponsible as the Japanese's reluctant to share information about its nuclear disasters.

Decline of inshore marine fishery resources

Historically under-utilized, China’s inshore marine fishery resources are now being over-exploited. Since the 1960’s, the number of fishing vessels has steadily increased, and fishing technologies have modernized and grown ever more efficient.

In the mid-1970's, fishery catches reached three mil ton. The harvest of traditional targeted species such as large and small yellow croaker dramatically decreased, while catches of lower quality fish species increased. Through the mid-1980's, catches rose an average of 20% each year, and the main targeted species shifted to small sized pelagic fishes such as anchovies, mackerels, and squids which eventually constituted more than 60% of the total catch.

The accelerating harvest, a lack of systematic fisheries management combined with a loss of fishery habitats, the destruction of nursery and breeding grounds have created a decline in the offshore fishery resources evident today.

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Due to the current situation of marine environment, are further increases of urban coastal areas still possible?

Marine space is one of the main elements supporting sustainable economic development in the future, and therefore ecosystem functions must be considered when analyzing the capacity of marine spatial resources to accommodate future development needs.

According to China’s planned development, by 2020 -2030, the coastal areas’ population will grow from 524 mil now, to 700 mil and then 840 mil people, which is more than a 50% increase.

Industrialization of these coastal areas will require increased pressures on marine spatial resources. Harbors’ shoreline may increase from 600 km to more than 1,000 km. Coastal industries and urban development may require sea reclamation of more than 5,000 km2. Port construction, ship building and marine tourism industries will all need to expand their marine space. Modernized fisheries industries will need to develop seaward towards deeper waters.

But after this review, it appears clearly that the continued increase as envisaged for the development of China's coastal areas should be discussed again. Damages and threats of pollution already registered in coastal zones and marine ecosystems should lead to modify the organization and pace of the planned development.

The China's people awareness on the environment, food and health  issues, as evident from the accounts published on the country social network, is another reason to prefer a more quality oriented model of development for the coming years. 

In addition, we must not lose sight that far beyond China, the protection of marine ecosystems and resources is indeed a shared responsibility with Japan and ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all sharing with China the same seas.