Saemangeum seawall aerial
The Saemangeum seawall wiped out 41,000 ha of mudflats – Wikimedia photo

Why South Korea is such a threat to migrating waders

Huge land reclamation projects along the Yellow Sea coasts of China and South Korea are blamed for the massive decline in migratory shorebird numbers. But where does the real danger lie?

Unchecked conversion of tidal mudflats to industrial development has destroyed crucial feeding grounds for waders migrating to and from Arctic and North Asian breeding territories.

Until recently, researchers regarded China and South Korea as similarly culpable. But amid fresh allegations of deep-seated corruption and environmental duplicity in South Korea, that country has emerged as the major threat.

Situation is dire

Leading shorebird migration researcher and regular visitor the Yellow Sea feeding grounds, New Zealander Keith Woodley, says the reclamation situation in South Korea is dire.

While he is “quietly optimistic’ about changing attitudes and more stringent government policies on coastal conversion in China, Woodley says South Korea is a totally different story.

“They hold these wonderfully organised Ramsar [Convention on Wetlands] partners meetings on biodiversity and make promises about no more reclamation. But when the circus folds up and leaves town, the reclamation starts again,” says the manager of the Miranda Shorebird Centre near Auckland.

Big flock of shorebirds
Land reclamation remains the big threat to migrating waders – ©Tony neilson

Corrupt relationship

“My understanding of South Korea is that the development industry and the government are in a corrupt relationship, and that’s that.”

Woodley recently attended a workshop on development guidelines for a wetland education centre in the city of Seosan. “It is a brand new, state-of-the-art complex and interpretation centre with a big viewing tower and wonderful artwork displays. Just magic!

“It sits on an escarpment just southwest of Seoul and celebrates biodiversity, shorebirds and shorebird habitat etc. But when you look out from the viewing platform, all you can see is flat land that used to be mudflats and shorebird habitat. Now it is reclaimed for rice paddies and other stuff.

“Building this wonderful ‘palace’ celebrating biodiversity that presides over a converted landscape is typical South Korea.”

Most infamous

The Saemangeum seawall – the world’s largest – wiped out 41,000 ha of mudflats and is by far the country’s most infamous coastal reclamation project.

“We [the Southeast Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership] monitored the project over several years. And just before the wall was completed [opened 2010], a colleague shot some video showing a flock of great knots – 60,000 of them in a fantastic whirling mass.

“I was at the same site one year later minus one day and by that stage I could barely find 600 great knots.”

Missing knots

Woodley says all the areas around Saemangeum were counted for shorebirds in 2007-08, plus key sites in China, but none of the missing knots was seen again.

“Maybe they went to North Korea but summer counts in northwest Australia over the next two years confirmed the total absence of 22 percent of the great knots from the population. And there is only one explanation for that – Saemangeum. It is pretty stark evidence and a classic case against the South Koreans.”

Positive signs in China

Although the scale of reclamation in China has been “exponentially worse”, Woodley says there are positive signs of change in the People’s Republic. “The state council has put down some stringent and comprehensive policy guidelines, involving all manner of water and air quality issues – the latter being a source of acute embarrassment.”

The sea cucumber industry, which has been developing rapidly in recent years, is a case in point. “The whole reserve of Yalu Jiang – 60km of coastline – is basically a grid of aquaculture ponds, particularly for sea cucumber.

“As I understand it, once the sea cucumber is harvested it has to be cleaned out with chemicals, and the result has been a huge environmental mess. So anything that curtails that industry has got to be good.”

Red knot feeding
Red knot in full breeding colours feeding at Roebuck Bay, WA – ©Tony Neilson

Conservation development

One of the most positive conservation developments occurred at Woodley’s Miranda Wetland office in March 2016 when a senior minister from China and New Zealand Government officials signed an agreement to set up some new protected areas for shorebirds – particularly red knots – in the Bohai Sea (China coast).

Woodley says Broome-based Chris Hassell from the Global Flyway Network has been monitoring Bohai for nearly a decade. “He has established that it is the most important site on the flyway for red knots – maybe half the global population stops there.

“And their favourite stopping place was right in the midst of this massive industrial development. People have been desperate to save that site… and this agreement between New Zealand and China specifically mentioned that area.

The decent thing

“It now comes down to local authorities doing the decent thing. But there is a saying among Chinese officials that ‘Beijing is a long way away’.

“Putting everything together, however, I think there is cause for quiet optimism that the Chinese understand the need to protect these coastal wetlands. Whether it will be quick and extensive enough to make a huge difference remains to be seen.”

(This is the third and final instalment of an interview with Keith Woodley conducted by Tony Neilson in February 2017. In addition to his extensive experience as an ornithologist, Keith is the author of the excellent GODWITS: Long-haul champions – the story of one bird’s voyage.)

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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