Conservation of Yellow Sea Tidal Flats: September 2016

Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea, October 13th 2016


There were (at least) three important meetings held in September 2016 that were of direct relevance to conservation of the Yellow Sea’s endangered tidal flats: (1) in the DPRK, a seminar at Samilpo (in northern Gangwon Provice) was followed by a research visit to Mundok on the west coast organized by the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF), MOLEP and the Ramsar Secretariat; (2) workshops were held and a poster on Song Do (Incheon) was presented at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Hawaii; and (3) a Yellow Sea workshop was held as part of the INTECOL international Wetlands Conference in Changsu, Jiangsu Province, PR China, again coordinated by the Korea office of HSF, with presentations given by HSF, the Ramsar Secretariat, the EAAFP Secretariat and Birds Korea in addition to national representatives.

This last workshop, held on September 21st, was of some historical significance in that presentations on the status of tidal flats were made  by representatives from the Ministry of Environment (ROK) and the Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection (DPRK) as well as from the PR China. It is certainly the first meeting that I have been at with presentations given by representatives from all three Yellow Sea nations, allowing a direct comparison between them.

The presentation from the PR China contained an impressive amount of information, and revealed the systematic approach being undertaken to gather data on waterbirds and to use those data to identify conservation priorities.  There are multiple challenges ahead including the proposed reclamation of the Tiaozini sandbanks in Jiangsu Province which, as raised at the workshop, would devastate what remains of the global population of the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank (though fortunately these sandbanks have not yet been reclaimed – even though plans were for completion of the reclamation project within 2015).

rs-dsc07777Presentation on the conservation status of  tidal flats and “coastal wetlands” in the PR China ©Nial Moores

The presentation from the DPRK also contained much useful information and highlighted challenges honestly and openly.  There was an open acknowledgement that because of reclamation there are now only about 100,00ha of tidal flat remaining nationwide (an estimate supported by independent analysis by researcher Dr Nick Murray), and clear acknowledgement that wetland conservation always needs to consider the livelihood needs of local communities.

dsc07761Presentation on conservation of tidal flats and coastal wetlands in the DPRK, given by Director General Ri Kyong Sim from MOLEP © Nial Moores

If the tidal flats of the DPRK are to provide a safe haven for migratory shorebirds (as has been suggested in several recent international news articles) then first much more effort will be needed to prove the economic benefits to be won through tidal flat conservation.

There are for example still no data that any participants were aware of which can be used to evaluate the importance of tidal flats to inshore fisheries as well as to shellfisheries.  At the least therefore, estimates of the economic value of tidal flats made globally and within e.g. the ROK (estimated in 2003 at > 37,000 USD per hectare per year: see slide below) need to be updated and presented in ways that can influence the decision-making process in all three nations.


dsc07733Estimated economic values of tidal flats in the ROK, presented by Dr Lew Young of the Ramsar Secretariat © Nial Moores

Currently, reclamation in the Yellow Sea is still most often understood in terms of direct economic costs and benefits – without proper consideration of the loss of ecosystem services and tidal flats’ importance to national food security.  No doubt, this helps to explain why only this month the destruction of another 4.5 % of the DPRK’s remaining tidal flat was celebrated by national media there rather than lamented (with a ceremony held on October 6th to celebrate the successful completion of the First Phase Project of Honggongdo Tideland, reclaiming 4,500ha of “rough seas” and tidal flats).

The presentation from the ROK included a review of jurisdictional authorities, but few details on the wetlands themselves.  Moreover,  the obviously incorrect national estimate of c. 248,000ha of “coastal wetland” (often used as a synonym for tidal-flat) was again  repeated. Why?

rs-dsc07792Presentation showing distribution of “coastal wetlands” in the ROK, given by a representative from the National Wetlands Research Centre, Ministry of Environment  © Nial Moores


It is perhaps worth recalling that the establishment of an accurate national estimate of remaining tidal-flat area and of the area which has been lost was first formally called for by Ramsar Resolution 7.21 back in 1999. Such an estimate is essential as a baseline if the rate of loss of natural habitats and biodiversity is to be measured and then reduced, as subsequently called for by formal Targets set by the intergovernmental Convention on Biological Diversity, more often called the CBD.

In 2014, the ROK published its formal Fifth National Report to CBD. This 2014 National Report includes this estimate on page 13:

“The total area of coastal wetlands in Korea is 2,489.4 km2, accounting for 2.5% of the national territory, of which 83.6% (2,080 km2) are concentrated on the western coast. The coastal wetland areas have been decreased by 22% since 1987”.

This estimate is identical to the estimate of “tidal-flat” area (as opposed to “coastal wetland”) provided by the Ministry of Environment in a different report published in 2012: 248,940ha.

Since 2014, there has been further large-scale reclamation at e.g. Yeongjong (c. 116 ha newly impounded, with another 240ha undergoing impoundment) and Song Do and small-scale reclamations in many areas (including on Baekryeong Island, with perhaps 10ha or so impounded this year). The total area of tidal flat lost in the past two years  just in Incheon, let alone nationwide, very likely substantially exceeds the 220ha of loss apparently reported by this presentation.

Moreover, if these rather precise estimates for 2014 and 2016 are compared with earlier formal statements, then it might seem surprising that even though there has been a reported loss of 22% of coastal wetland since 1987,  a comparison of a previous estimate with the one used currently suggests that there has been an increase of almost 10,000ha in tidal-flat area in the ROK since 1997 – since even before the impoundment of Saemangeum and of Namyang Bay and Asan Bay and of all the other massive reclamation projects whose progress has been so well-documented.

The estimate of c. 248,000ha presented in 2014 and 2016 is also strongly at odds with research by Birds Korea published in 2010 which suggests that only 110,000-112,000ha of tidal-flat remained in the ROK at low tide by the mid-late 2000s.  This estimate was developed through careful review of publicly-available satellite imagery.

A couple of years later, using a completely different set of images and a different software program, Dr Nick Murray and colleagues at the University of Queensland independently estimated that approximately 120,000ha of tidal-flat remained in the ROK at (lowest) low tide in the 2000s. Their estimate  is therefore remarkably similar to the Birds Korea estimate and less than half the MOE’s estimate given in the 2014 CBD National report and at this workshop at the INTECOL conference.  Dr Murray’s research is hardly a secret either. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment  back in 2014, and was also presented at two different workshops at the very same INTECOL workshop.

As someone working for an ROK conservation organisation, am I the only person who feels embarrassed?




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