By Wang Yan in Beijing and Tangshan
The Bohai Bay coastline in northeastern China, a magnet for migratory wading birdlife, is also becoming a playground for China’s largest land reclamation companies.
As one of the world’s most important wildlife habitats, Bohai Bay, located in the middle of the East Asian-Australian Flyway (EAAF), has provided a vital stopover for millions of migratory birds, and 60- 80 percent of the world’s total pass through the region every year.
However, Bohai Bay has also become one of the most densely populated and rapidly developing commercial and industrial areas in the world, putting humans in direct competition with the region’s wildlife.
Between 1994 and 2010, a total of 450 square kilometers of offshore area, including 218 square kilometers of intertidal flats (one-third of the total area of such flats in the Bohai area), were appropriated by land reclamation projects. Ornithologists Zhang Zhengwang and Yang Hongyan from Beijing Normal University are among the naturalists decrying the destruction of this vital habitat. “[Land reclamation] has forced migrants northward to huddle in an ever shrinking ‘rump,’” ran their recent joint paper on the subject. “Worse still, we predict the population density of waterfowl in these havens… will soon reach the point of collapse, in view of the continued reclamation activities in the Bohai Bay area.”
The “ever-shrinking rump” referred to by Zhang and Yang is a region that stretches some 20 kilometers along the coastline of Luannan County, Tangshan City, Hebei Province, which plays host to 200,000 migratory waterfowl representing 60 species from March to late June each year. Zhang and Yang have focused their ornithological research in this specific area for a decade, in particular monitoring internationally significant concentrations of sixteen species. Among them are two subspecies of red knot, curlew sandpipers and, most critically, relict gulls, listed as a “vulnerable” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In mid-July, our reporter visited this study site. Although most of the migratory birds, such as red knots, have moved to their northern breeding home, NewsChina was able to observe bird species such as the Kentish plover, pied avocet and black-winged stilt nesting and feeding on the tidal flats.
Despite the large flocks of waterfowl which are still visible in this area, ornithologist Que Pinjia told our reporter that their presence belies the harsh reality of alarmingly rapid habitat loss. Que, also from Beijing Normal University, was conducting daily tallies and banding of newly-hatched Kentish plovers in the area.
Two large industrial development projects have been underway on the western and northern coasts of the Bohai Bay. The Tianjin Binhai New Area located west of Bohai Bay and the Caofeidian New Area to the north were started in 1994 and 2002 respectively, with the former under the jurisdiction of Tianjin Municipality and the latter under the government of Tangshan City.
Sitting adjacent to the Caofeidian land reclamation project which covers a total area of 1,943 square kilometers, the limited coastal regions of Luannan are already dotted with dykes, harbors, roads, saltpans, shrimp ponds and construction sites on manmade islands, all evidence of increasing human activity. These projects come alongside petrochemical giant Sinopec’s 1 billion-ton oilfield which now operates on the seashore.
Yang Hongyan has done years of research on the area’s two subspecies of red knot, calidris canutus –the piersmai and rogersi subgroups and claims that, in 2010, the area was home to at least 67 percent of the world population of the former and 57 percent of the latter during April and May.
“Peak spring numbers of the two red knot subspecies in the EAAF increased from 13 percent of the total global population in 2007 to 62 percent in 2010,” wrote Yang in her research paper. “The increase in red knot numbers in this area comes alongside a decrease in the total flyway population of both subspecies, from 222,000 in 2000 down to 130,000 in 2007, and further down to 105,000 in 2009.”
Yang’s calculations confirm that these rare birds have been forced into ever-smaller areas of the tidal flats, and are now concentrated in the core area of Tangshan as land reclamation continues to erode habitats in Bohai Bay.
“The birds have nowhere else to go,” Yang told NewsChina. “We can therefore conclude that waterfowl density at the remaining coastal habitats in the Bohai Bay area, especially in Tangshan, will continue to increase as intertidal flats are lost. As a result, instinct has forced the birds to congregate together or to relocate, leading to a decline in their flyway population.”
Intertidal flats in Luannan are so far the only intact haven for the migratory shorebirds along the entire Bohai coastline. Despite this, commercial saltpans and shrimp ponds have occupied much of the coastal territory in the region, and now rumors of a planned sea cucumber farm, an expensive local delicacy, have begun to circulate.
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