Ramsar and the Republic of Korea: 2015

Dr. Nial Moores, Birds Korea, June 1st 2015


The Twelfth Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (COP12) is being held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, between June 1st and 9th. A major focus of work for those at Ramsar COP12 will be the development and endorsement of the next Ramsar Strategic Plan, helping maintain the Ramsar Convention’s role in harmonizing wetland conservation as part of broader sustainable development goals (as called for by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals).

The science behind the Ramsar Convention and other conservation conventions is already clear. Wetlands (from mountain streams to rivers, floodplain wetlands, rice-fields, tidal-flats and sea-shallows, and all that they connect) are vital to the health of our planet. Directly or indirectly, wetlands provide people with most of the water that we drink and the food that we eat. Wetlands also play a vital role in maintaining a climate fit for our species and for a wealth of biodiversity.

And yet, wetlands continue to be lost and degraded worldwide at a staggering rate: even in many of the nations that are signatories to the Ramsar Convention. A key summary report, “Status of the World’s Wetlands and their Services to People”, states:

  • The global extent of wetlands is now estimated to have declined between 64-71% in the 20th century, and wetland losses and degradation continue worldwide.
  • Because of wetland losses and degradation, people are deprived of the ecosystem services that wetlands provide. Adverse changes to wetlands, including coral reefs, are estimated to result in more than US$20 trillion in losses of ecosystem services annually.

This is even though

  • Policymakers have sufficient scientific information to understand the urgent need to take appropriate actions to conserve wetlands and their services to people.

Birds Korea has been an active supporter of the Ramsar Convention since our foundation back in 2004 (and before…). Most of our reports and communications describe the international importance of wetlands as defined by the Ramsar Convention (with much reference to Ramsar criteria for identifying internationally important wetlands, including [1] A wetland’s supporting of more than 20,000 waterbirds regularly; and [2] A wetland’s supporting of 1% or more of a population of a waterbird species). Many of the species we have focused on are waterbirds (including the globally Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the globally Endangered Scaly-sided Merganser). And, very much in line with the spirit and literature of the Ramsar Convention, we use changes in the numbers of waterbird species like these to help indicate changes in ecological character of wetlands (broadly speaking, with increases used to indicate the success of conservation policies; and declines used to indicate the loss of ecological character and / or a reduction in wetland ecosystem health).

Republic of Korea

The ROK has been a signatory of the Ramsar Convention since 1997. As a Contracting Party the nation benefits through e.g. increased access to technical and regional support for wetland conservation. Obligations include completion of a formal national report every three years, in which the nation’s progress on wetland conservation is described. These national reports, written in English, are posted publicly by the Ramsar Secretariat and provide essential reading for anyone interested in wetland conservation at the national level.

One key commitment of Ramsar Contracting Parties is to identify and place suitable wetlands onto the List of Wetlands of International Importance. The 2014 National Ramsar Report for the ROK highlights the increase in the number of Ramsar sites (to 19) and of Wetland Protected Areas (to 33).

The ROK’s Ramsar sites now cover a total area of 18,315ha (or 0.18% of national area), as listed at http://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/sitelist_0.pdf.   Wetland Protected Areas (about half of which are Ramsar sites) cover 33,299ha (or 0.33% of national area). The area of Ramsar site in the ROK therefore appears to represent a slightly higher percentage of national territory than in Japan (where Ramsar sites apparently cover only about 0.1% of national territory) but substantially less than in China (with its four million hectares of Ramsar site apparently equating to 0.4% of national territory).

Of note too, many of the most important sites for waterbirds in the ROK, identified though the research by both NGOs and GOs are not yet Ramsar sites. A “shadow list” in 1999 identified 63 sites nationwide that met two (or more) of Ramsar’s waterbird criteria for identification as internationally important wetlands. Of 25 sites listed as “Most Important Sites by Number of Internationally Important Concentrations during Korean Wetlands Alliance Survey” in 1999, at least 16 are not yet included in Wetland Protected Areas or Ramsar sites, and most have suffered severe ecological degradation since the ROK joined the Ramsar Convention in 1997 (including e.g. Saemangeum, Namyang Bay and Asan Bay).

KWApage_RS1Table Listing 25 Most Important Waterbird Sites in the ROK in 1998-1999 (p.7 of the Korea Wetlands Alliance, National NGO Wetlands Report 1999, Edited by N. Moores)


Several additional internationally important wetlands for waterbirds have been identified by survey effort since the end of the 1990s; and most of these are similarly excluded. As reported in Status of Birds 2014, five freshwater wetlands surveyed during the MOE Census in 2014 still supported concentrations of more than 20,000 waterbirds and at least 27 count sites supported at least 1% of one or more populations of waterbird –  with only one of these wetlands yet designated a Ramsar site.

Furthermore, our data confirm that we have now lost >75% of our historical area of tidal-flat; and show that at least a third of all waterbird species are in decline at the national level. A further third have an unknown trend, and might be in decline.

Recent Ramsar site designations in the ROK unfortunately seem unlikely to play a major role in maintaining waterbird populations, as called for by the Ramsar Convention and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The two newest listed Ramsar sites are the Bamseom Islets in the Han River in Seoul (26ha designated in June 2012) and part of the Song Do tidal-flat in Incheon (611ha designated on July 10th 2014)

While we applaud the conservation of urban wetlands as Ramsar sites here and overseas, we are puzzled by the designation in Seoul of an area that appears to have much less (obvious) value for biodiversity than other areas along the Han River. Annual surveys of waterbirds along the Han River, e.g. as conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment since 1999, do not appear to indicate the national or international importance of the Bamseom Islets to waterbirds.

Birds Korea has rather greater understanding and experience of Song Do, as we have been working for the conservation of tidal-flats at Song Do for many years. Song Do also hosts the EAAFP office and Chadwick International School, whose students (under the guidance of science teachers / Birds Koreans Mr. Aaron Miller and Ms. Lynn Crew) monitored waterbirds at the site between December 2011 and 2014, finding substantial declines of shorebirds. We are therefore puzzled and again underwhelmed by this designation, as it was made while Ramsar-defined internationally important tidal-flats at Song Do, immediately adjacent to the new Ramsar site, are still being reclaimed.

PartofSongDoRamsarSite_Nov2014_RSLarge-scale reclamation ongoing at Song Do, November 2014 © Nial Moores. Presumably the remanant area of tidal-flat beyond the newest set of seawalls forms the “core” of the new Ramsar site

In addition, during recent visits to Song Do (in January, February and March 2015) we were unaware of any signboards indicating the Ramsar designation; nor of any active wetland management aiming at biodiversity conservation. Rather, the data that are available indicate an ongoing decline of shorebirds supported there; and observations at Dongmak Lagoon, where there is a colony of breeding Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, became increasingly degraded during the 2014/ 2015 winter (i.e. since Ramsar designation of some of the tidal-flats there).

dongmaklagoon_January2015_RS1_DSC00240Dongmak Lagoon, Song Do, January 2015 with Black-faced Spoonbill breeding island towards the top left © Nial Moores

Our understanding therefore is that waterbird populations at Song Do will continue to decline as roost sites, feeding areas and even breeding sites continue to be degraded or lost. This includes at Song Do itself; at the adjacent Sorae; and also at Yeongjong (where further reclamation, urbanization, “park” building and real estate developments in the past 2-3 years have led to the loss of several shorebird roosts and some feeding areas).

The 2014 National Ramsar Report for the ROK also states plainly that there has been no change in the ecological character of wetlands in the nation during the past three years (2012-2014). This statement seems surprising in light of continuing reclamation of tidal-flats (including e.g. new large-scale reclamation started in the north of Yeongjong in 2013; ongoing reclamation at Song Do and the nationally important Mokpo Namhang Urban Wetland; and continuing degradation of internationally important wetlands including Namyang Bay, Asan Bay and Saemangeum which were impounded in the 2000s). There have also been widespread river-works in the past three years (follow-up phases of the ecologically-disastrous Four Rivers Project); and widespread use of hard engineering approaches in agricultural areas that seem likely to drive loss of biodiversity in rice-fields areas, including in areas used by globally threatened waterbird species.

Section 1.3.4 of the same report also asks the question “Are Environmental Impact Assessments made for any development projects (such as new buildings, new roads, extractive industry) that may affect wetlands?” This is answered “Yes”, with the statement that “The Environmental Impact Assessment Act requires investigation, prediction, and assessment of the possible negative impact of an implementation plan, proposal, or project that involve urbanization and development activities in protected area, including wetlands. And the Act also requires a developer of the proposed plan to create ways to eliminate or mitigate the impact.”

There is often a lack of clarity in development projects. Nonetheless, we are aware of multiple developments affecting wetlands, many of which are internationally or nationally important for waterbirds, even though they have not been designated as protected areas. These range in size from the large-scale reclamation of tidal-flats to an ongoing road-building project through Hwadong Wetland on Baekryreong Island (also in Incheon City), which we worked to challenge last year. There, a small wetland that supported the nation’s largest overwintering concentration of the Globally Endangered Oriental Stork has been massively degraded between 2013 and 2015 by ongoing road construction and “improved” drainage. There is no mitigation that we are aware of. Rather, a site of high importance for biodiversity and enormous potential for eco-tourism and environmental education (sustainable use of which would have provided multiple benefits for local people) has been degraded in order to save a few car-drivers a couple of minutes of time on the road…

Baekryeong_Nov-2013 -HwadongWetland_RS

may 2014 162_RS

hwadong_May22_2015_RS1Hwadong Wetland, Baekryeong Island (Incheon) in November 2013 (top); May 2014; and again in May 2015 © Nial Moores

The ROK still has many internationally and nationally important wetland sites; and some of these sites still support seaonally huge concentrations of waterbirds and a substantial proportion of the populations of many globally threatened waterbird species. As elsewhere, there is much still to do here.

Lacking the capacity to involve directly in Ramsar COP 12, we therefore instead wish all those in Uruguay best success. We continue to applaud NGOs and GOs (and the Ramsar Secretariat) that work with great dedication to improve conservation opportunities for wetlands – and the biodiversity that the world’s wetlands support. For our part, Birds Korea remains ready and willing to generate and share data freely; to help import and export best scientific information honestly; and to raise awareness  of our species’ need for wetlands and biodiversity.

Wetland and biodiversity conservation is in everybody’s interest after all…





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