Dr Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea
On July 5th, the Phase 1 Proposal to list multiple key wetlands as the “Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China” World Heritage Site was formally accepted by the World Heritage Commission.
A series of Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Chinese coast are now publicly recognized as having Outstanding Universal Value. And they are going to be protected as such.
This decision marks a public long-term commitment by PR China and the global community to conserve some of the most threatened habitats and migratory species on our Flyway. It is therefore not only great for PR China and those waterbirds that depend on the Chinese coast, of course. It is also great for the Yellow Sea and for our Flyway as a whole.
On behalf of Birds Korea, long dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, our sincerest thanks therefore go out to all those who were most deeply involved in this nomination process. In addition to the Chinese authorities – including of course the hugely-inspirational Professor Lei Guangchun – we would also like to thank the RSPB’s Nicola Crockford (who recently circulated two letters encouraging the nomination process to proceed, which we feel honored to have been able to sign onto), Professor Rich Fuller and the Australian delegation. And of course, we also want to express our deepest thanks to the many thousands of people inside and outside of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion who over the years have helped create the conditions for real progress in PR China that underpin this decision – a genuine shift away from countless destructive reclamation proposals to World Heritage Site listing of bird important areas.
It is time for celebration along the Flyway, and also for some much-needed reflection here in Korea. From our side of the Yellow Sea, should we not now ask ourselves how PR China has managed to progress so rapidly in improving conservation opportunities for birds and their habitats – when many of our internationally important tidal wetlands, like Song Do and Yeongjong Do, are still being reclaimed?
Remarkably, the ROK used to be ahead of the PR China in both research on and progress towards the conservation of internationally important wetlands. The first comprehensive shorebird counts of the Nakdong Estuary were made back in the early 1980s, and the public call to conserve tidal flats at Ganghwa Island, Yeongjong, Namyang and Asan Bays was made as long ago as 1988 in recognition of their Ramsar-defined international importance for shorebirds (Long et al. 1988). A decade later, the Wetland Conservation Act had been passed, and by the end of the 1990s, all of the ROK coast had been surveyed, allowing for the development of a national shadow list of wetlands that met Ramsar waterbird criteria (Moores 1999a, 1999b). By 2001, these sites – still almost all unprotected – had even been fitted into a Yellow Sea framework as part of a WWF Yellow Sea Ecoregion project (Moores et al. 2001). In subsequent years, some of these key tidal flats have been designated as Ramsar sites (including part of the Geum Estuary, Song Do, Gomso, Muan and Suncheon Bay); and the ROK also led the way in proposing some of the nation’s tidal flats for World Heritage Listing. The initial submission was rejected, however; and the process to resubmit currently remains under way.
By way of comparison, the importance of the Chinese Yellow Sea and Bohai coast to waterbirds was first revealed (at least internationally) only in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thanks to surveys by some pioneering Chinese researchers and the Australasian Wader Studies’ Group (AWSG). It was then the AWSG’s Mark Barter who in 2002 published the hugely-influential monograph on Shorebirds of the Yellow Sea, incorporating both Chinese and Korean count data, helping to raise profound concerns in Australia and along the Flyway about the impacts that large-scale reclamation in the Yellow Sea was likely having on our shorebirds.
There were still numerous information gaps about much of the Chinese coast, however, all the way through the 2000s – the period during which we “lost” Namyang Bay and Saemangeum here in Korea. Much of the Jiangsu coast, some of which is now inscribed as World Heritage Site, was only first identified as especially important for migratory birds less than a decade ago – this because of exploratory surveys conducted by our wonderful colleagues, SBS in China. Since that discovery – and in no small part because of it – regular waterbird surveys were then initiated in more and more areas, soon allowing for priority waterbird conservation areas to be identified along the whole Chinese coast.
Even as the knowledge base was improving, and even as numerous local Chinese bird conservation organisations were starting to grow, the conservation challenge still seemed enormous: unwinnable to some. It was only back in 2012 that the IUCN Situation Analysis concluded that,
“Fisheries and vital ecological services are collapsing and ecological disasters increasing, with concomitant implications for human livelihoods…Although all sectors of the EAAF face a variety of threats, the Yellow Sea (including the Bohai Sea) emerges as the focus of greatest concern…Here, the fast pace of coastal land reclamation is the most pressing threat…Losses of such magnitude are likely the key drivers of declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services” (Mackinnon et al. 2012).
In 2013, following research in Jiangsu, we helped write an international press release with SBS in China and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force – in which we highlighted the massive importance of the Rudong coast of Jiangsu Province to migratory shorebirds. This was still news at that time. And we congratulated local authorities in designating a small protected area for Spoon-billed Sandpipers, while fully conscious of the threat to a much larger area a little to the north: Tiaozini.
In 2014, we returned to Jiangsu, and together shifted the focus more toward conservation of what remained at Tiaozini, the offshore Dongsha and Gaoni Sandbanks. This is a vast area used by foraging shorebirds at low tide. Loss of that site to reclamation, which was imminent at the time, would very likely have resulted in the global extinction of both the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the Nordmann’s Greenshank.
Since that time, happily many more people in PR China and along the Flyway have become deeply involved in wetland and bird conservation in the Chinese part of the Yellow Sea, and all the way along the coast to Hong Kong. A deep collaboration within PR China has evolved between world-class researchers and conservation scientists, NGOs (some funded properly for the first time by a growing donor culture there) and decision-makers. Progress has also been assisted greatly by the open involvement of outside bodies like the Paulson Institute (thanks initially, as I remember it, to some amazing persuasion by then EAAFP Chief Spike Millington!), international bodies like the IUCN and key figures like David Melville. In combination, this has all ensured that decision-makers – including those at the very highest level – have easy access to high-quality data and information with which to make the most-informed decisions for the benefit of their nation and of the world. And they have done so. Since the beginning of last year , PR China has been cancelling reclamation projects and initiating massive wetland restoration projects instead.
And this is the very solid foundation on which PR China could propose, and have accepted, World Heritage Site listing of 188,643 ha of coastal and tidal wetlands (with an additional buffer zone of 80,056 ha), including it seems all of the key habitat in Tiaozini .
So where are we now, here in the ROK?
The vast desert of Saemangeum continues to degrade (without any serious discussion of restoration); and many of the tidal flats at Song Do and Yeongjong Do continue to be reclaimed, even while developers bicker about who is responsible for their resultant financial problems. There are still reclamation proposals for large parts of the Geum Estuary; and efforts to buy and manage an area used by roosting shorebirds on Yubu Island have fallen through. Sites like Gomso Bay (part of the ROK World Heritage Site proposal) are still suffering from piecemeal reclamation projects and road construction plans; and even the prized Suncheon Bay is becoming increasingly built-up, to enable ever greater numbers of tourists to visit – while numbers of some tidal flat species continue their decline. Indeed, there are still no managed bird reserves anywhere (unless you count a couple of remote islands used by seabirds), and even more remarkably, apparently due to lack of funds, there is not even any coordinated national-level shorebird monitoring program – despite the many tens of billions of won that continue to be spent on the construction and maintenance of national research institutes.
Is it not reasonable and proper to ask, therefore, whether it is actually appropriate to push on with proposing World Heritage Listing of tidal flats in the ROK, when some of them are still threatened? And when substantial political support is still being given to proposals for reclamation and for construction of new airports, including within the Saemangeum reclamation area and in the outermost part of the Nakdong Estuary (as well as on Jeju Island and even on Heuksan, Ulleung and Baekryeong islands!)?
Would it not be more appropriate for the nation’s decision-makers to first rethink the development model instead? Should they not first call for the restoration of Saemangeum and a permanent end to further reclamation, in order to slow the loss of avian biodiversity, to preserve marine life and fisheries, and to help with efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions?
Would it not be more appropriate too for business and both local and national government first to invest properly in nature reserve creation and management, instead of only in construction (either of ecoparks or wetland centres)? And for those with money to provide much greater support for habitat management and in helping to build up the capacity of the NGO conservation sector?
Before thinking about World Heritage Listing, is it not time too for many more academics here in the ROK to become much more vocal and transparent in their support of conservation, and in the sharing of their data?
And should not more effort also be spent too on strengthening the Environmental Impact Assessment process and on increasing accountability, including that of decision-makers – so that the ecologically-devastating mistakes of the past 20 years (like Saemangeum and the Four Rivers project) are not repeated?
World Heritage Listing of the ROK’s tidal flats will be a wonderful, great step forward – a time for everyone here to celebrate too. But Listing should not be approached like some annoying administrative hurdle.
Instead, it first requires a sincere national commitment to conserve and to manage well all those tidal wetlands and bird-rich areas which are truly understood to be of Outstanding Universal Value.
To our great regret, this kind of sincere commitment still seems a very long way off.
But it is no longer unimaginable. To see how much brighter the future of wetland and bird conservation could be here in the ROK, we now only need to look a short distance across the Yellow Sea, to China.
- Barter, M. 2002. Shorebirds of the Yellow Sea: Importance, threats and conservation status. Wetlands International Global Series 9, International Wader Studies 12, Canberra, Australia
- Long, A., Poole, C., Eldridge, M., Won P-O & Lee K-S. 1988. A Survey of Coastal wetlands and Shorebirds in South Korea, Spring 1988. Asian Wetland Bureau, Kuala Lumpur.
- MacKinnon, J., Verkuil, Y.I. & Murray, N. 2012. IUCN situation analysis on East and Southeast Asian intertidal habitats, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea (including the Bohai Sea). Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No. 47. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. ii + 70 pp.
- Moores, N. 1999a. A Survey of the Distribution and Abundance of Shorebirds in South Korea during 1998-1999: Interim Summary. Stilt 34: 18-29.
- Moores N., Kim S-K, Park S-B and T. Sadayoshi (Eds). 2001. Yellow Sea Ecoregion: Reconnaissance Report on Identification of Important Wetland and Marine Areas for Biodiversity. Volume 2: South Korea. Published by WBK and WWF-Japan, Busan. 142 pages (published in Korean and English-language versions).