In the last 30 years the coral reef ecosystems off the coast of mainland China and Hainan Island have suffered an 80 per cent decline largely due to unrestrained economic development driving coastal development, pollution and overfishing.
The study, published in the journal Conservation Biology - The Wicked Problem of China's Disappearing Coral Reefs - was conducted jointly by scientists from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University, and from the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"A wicked problem is one that is very hard to solve without having a whole lot of other foreseen and unforeseen consequences to people, industries and to the environment itself," said lead author Professor Terry Hughes.
"Typically, when a coral reef degrades it is taken over by seaweeds - and from there, experience has shown, it is very hard to return it to its natural coral cover. The window of opportunity to recover the reefs of the South China Sea is closing rapidly, given the state of degradation revealed in this study," Professor Hughes said.
The report abstract says:
"We found that coral abundance has declined by at least 80% over the past 30 years on coastal fringing reefs along the Chinese mainland and adjoining Hainan Island. On offshore atolls and archipelagos claimed by 6 countries in the South China Sea, coral cover has declined from an average of >60% to around 20% within the past 10-15 years. Climate change has affected these reefs far less than coastal development, pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices. Ironically, these widespread declines in the condition of reefs are unfolding as China's research and reef-management capacity are rapidly expanding."
Reducing land use development, pollution runoff and managing fisheries helps to promote coral reef resilience, but coral reef ecosystems will struggle to survive with increasing sea surface temperatures and the impact of ocean acidification proceeding at an unprecedented rate not seen in last 300 million years. We have known for several years that Global Warming imperils coral reefs: 2 degrees warming is too hot. There have been warnings from marine scientists that our Oceans at high risk of unprecedented Marine extinction.
The coral reefs of the South China Sea stretch over some 30,000 kilometres. The problem of conservation and management is exacerbated by contested territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
While a number of small marine conservation reserves have been established in recent years by China and other regional countries, the scientists say they are too small and too far apart to prevent the decline in coral cover.
"Governing wicked problems becomes more challenging as they increase in extent from local to regional or global scales, particularly where institutions are weak or nonexistent," the scientists caution. Cases such as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by six different countries, highlight the dilemma say the scientists.
"There is no quick fix to a wicked problem as complex as securing a sustainable future for coral reefs in China and the South China Sea," they add.
"We suggest that governance of China's coastal reefs can be improved by increasing public awareness, by legal and institutional reform that promotes progressive change, by providing financial support for training of reef scientists and managers, expanding monitoring of coral reef status and dynamics, and by enforcing existing regulations that protect reef ecosystems."
While China's centralised Government can mobilise the resources necessary to take remedial action, this will require innovative leadership and strong public support say the scientists. The study authors recommend increased conservation governance as a priority before the unique reef ecosystem is totally destroyed. From the report abstract:
"Before the loss of corals becomes irreversible, governance of China's coastal reefs could be improved by increasing public awareness of declining ecosystem services, by providing financial support for training of reef scientists and managers, by improving monitoring of coral reef dynamics and condition to better inform policy development, and by enforcing existing regulations that could protect coral reefs. In the South China Sea, changes in policy and legal frameworks, refinement of governance structures, and cooperation among neighboring countries are urgently needed to develop cooperative management of contested offshore reefs."
- ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies media release 27 December 2012 - China's corals facing 'wicked problem
- Hughes TP, Huang H, Young MA, Conserv Biol. 2012 Nov 9. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01957.x. - The Wicked Problem of China's Disappearing Coral Reefs (abstract)
- Image by Storm Crypt - Boomerang Island - part of the disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea - from Flickr used under Creative commons licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)