The spoonbill sandpiper is among the endangered shorebirds that could benefit from China's move to protect coastal wetlands.

Tengyi Chen

China moves to protect coastal wetlands used by migratory birds

China has armored its coastline over the past several decades, building sea walls and turning more than half of its marine wetlands into solid ground for development. The impact on the almost 500 species of migratory birds that rely on this habitat has been severe. But the tide is turning in favor of wildlife, conservationists believe, as the government is now moving to tighten regulations and designate new reserves to protect coastal wildlife.

“The message has reached the central government,” says Jing Li of Saving the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a nonprofit based in Shanghai, China.

In particular, China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) earlier this month announced it will dramatically curb commercial development of coastal wetlands. “I’ve never heard of anything quite so monumental,” says Nicola Crockford of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based in Sandy, U.K., which has worked to protect habitat of migratory birds in China and elsewhere.

SOA’s 17 January statement said the agency will only approve coastal wetland development that is important for public welfare or national defense. Unauthorized projects will be stopped, and illegal structures torn down. The administration will nationalize already reclaimed wetlands that have not yet been built on. (Despite the loss of tides, these areas can still benefit wildlife.) “This represents a … true ‘sea change’ in the official political attitudes to the very large, and internationally shared, biodiversity values of the shorelines of China,” says ecologist Theunis Piersma of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “Man, is this hopeful!”

China’s coastal wetlands—and in particular those in the Yellow Sea, which is at the midpoint of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway—are crucial for birds that migrate between Siberia and Australia. But development has robbed the birds of habitat and food, and some 10% of the species that use the flyway are in peril of extinction. Case in point is the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, which specializes in plucking tiny crustaceans from the mud with its eponymous beak. Only about 220 breeding pairs survive.

Lax regulation

Madcap economic development in coastal China led to intense demand for new land. Although there are some regulations to protect wetlands, local governments and businesses often ignored or dodged them. The central government began to give more because of environmental protections in about 2012. For example, China’s equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cracked down on some local government officials charged with destruction of wetlands, says Zhijun Ma, a conservation biologist at Fudan University in Shanghai.

In 2015, the central government created a “red line” to protect 53 million hectares of wetlands, but a report from the State Forestry Administration, which has jurisdiction over much of the wetlands, warned that ongoing reclamation has put those wetlands in danger. SOA has stepped up action to prevent more destruction, issuing several regulations in recent years. And in 2016, SOA created 16 marine parks, bringing the total area with various levels of protection to about 124,000 square kilometers.

But the newest regulations are “a turning point” in SOA’s attention to marine ecosystem protection, says Zhengwang Zhang, an ornithologist at Beijing Normal University. By deflecting development pressure, the new regulations will make it easier to create new reserves and should add momentum to efforts to expand a World Heritage Site around key wetlands, Crockford says.

More work awaits

Piersma and other researchers in the Global Flyway Network hope to continue research with satellite tracking of migratory birds to show which habitats are most important and to track progress in reserves. “We need to keep a close eye on the developments of the population, and see whether the recoveries actually will take place following political change.” Ma says a more comprehensive evaluation on the status, trends, and threats to coastal wetlands at national level is still required.

There’s political work to do, too. China still lacks national wetland protection laws, Zhang says, as well as a national action plan for coastal wetland protection. Penalties for damaging wetlands need to be strengthened.

Li notes that the current regulation is focusing on stopping reclamation but not directly on conserving biodiversity. It will take “huge resources” to restore reclaimed wetlands that have been invaded by spartina grass, which degrades the habitat for migratory birds, she says.

Enforcement will be important. Li suspects there is still opposition to the regulations from local governments that depend on development for revenue. Ultimately, Crockford says it will be important to win over locals by demonstrating the benefits of tidal wetlands, including nature tourism and flood protection.