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    Wetlands ‘Restoration’ Threatens Bird Habitats

    With restoration projects like these, who needs enemies, activists ask.

    JIANGSU, East China — An ongoing wetlands restoration project on the southern coast of China’s Yellow Sea will destroy crucial habitat for migratory shorebirds, environmental activists say. 

    China announced a national coastal wetland restoration project as part of its 13th five-year plan in 2016, which made wetlands restoration an environmental priority. The central government has provided up to 3 billion yuan ($472 million) in financial subsidies to participating cities to encourage restoration.

    But not everyone understands “restoration” the same way. The coastal city of Lianyungang, in northern Jiangsu province, promises that its “Blue Bay” project will help clean up smooth cordgrass, an invasive plant, and turn miles of dirty mudflats into gold sand beaches facing a gleaming blue bay. To environmentalists, the plan isn’t so much restoration as wetlands replacement.

    First announced in 2017, the project is currently under construction. 

    “We believe that if the construction continues, it is very likely to bring irreversible damage to the habitat and could eventually cause decline to the migratory birds,” said Liu Jinmei, a lawyer with Friends of Nature, the Beijing-based environmental organization. 

    The organization, known for promoting preventive public interest litigation in China, has filed a lawsuit against the companies responsible for the project, asking them to end construction, remedy the ecological harm caused by the breakwater, and pay compensation for any environmental costs. 

    “The purpose of the lawsuit is to protect the ecological diversity and the essential habitat for the rare species,” Liu said.

    The city’s coastal wetlands serve as a pit stop for migratory shorebirds traveling between the arctic and the southern hemisphere. Every spring and fall, over two million birds rest here in the middle of the journey, gorging on shellfish to refuel for the long flight ahead. 

    According to a local government website, it plans to build a 9.37-kilometer-long ring-shaped breakwater near the Linhong estuary, encircling an artificial bay with a sand beach and a green corridor. 

    The project will submerge about 14.2 square kilometers of intertidal mudflats that are also an essential habitat for thousands of migratory shorebirds. 

    “This is an important feeding ground for many birds. Without it, those birds won’t be able to sustain their global migration,” said Li Jing, the founder of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China, a private organization for the protection of waterbirds. 

    Started as a birdwatching group in 2008, the organization has been collecting data on waterbirds on the Jiangsu coast for 13 years. 

    According to Li Jing, the organization has monitored about 25 migratory shorebirds around the Linhong estuary from 2014 to 2020. Over half of the birds are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

    Among the species most affected by the project is the Asian dowitcher. In 2019, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China recorded over 22,432 individuals at the estuaries, constituting 97.5% of its estimated global population. It’s a thriving colony, but researchers say concentration means the bird is vulnerable.

    “In ecology, we have a concept called an ‘ecological bottleneck,’” said Yang Ziyou, the bird researcher at Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China. “Asian dowitchers spread out in their breeding place and wintering ground, but all squeeze in only one area at this stopover site. So if anything happens in Lianyungang, it could be the end of this species.” 

    The Yellow Sea has the most extensive tidal flats in the world, which make it a vital “refueling” place for birds during their global migration. However, intertidal mudflats are rapidly disappearing due to land reclamation as the region undergoes an economic boom. Scientists have also seen a dramatic decline in birds flying through this region.

    “We certainly know that the birds are declining quickly. But the fact is that the Yellow Sea specialists are declining more quickly than any other routes of birds,” said Richard Fuller, a professor of biological science at the University of Queensland in Australia. “You might think the birds could fly somewhere else, but there is nowhere else for them to go.”

    Fuller and his team used satellite data to track how much of the tidal flats in the Yellow Sea have disappeared, and found that more than two-thirds of the region’s intertidal mudflats have gone in the last 50 years. 

    Fuller said that every inch of the remaining tidal flats may be crucial to the survival of the traveling birds. 

    In 2011, the country updated its national technical guidelines for ecological impact assessment, requiring that any project built in “important ecological sensitive regions” must first perform an impact assessment on the local ecology and provide a compensation plan to help reduce the harm to protected animals. The document states that “natural gathering spots for rare wild species” should be covered by this process.

    However, the Blue Bay project didn’t run an impact assessment test on birds when they first applied for construction approval in 2017

    According to domestic media, the company responsible for developing the Blue Bay project claimed it was an “unintentional mistake” because the Linhong estuary was not listed as a crucial ecological zone by the local government.

    Eventually, the company re-submitted a bird report later in 2020, in order to apply for more funding from the central government. The new report suggested that the project may cause about 20% of the bird population living in the area to lose their habitat. However, at that moment, the construction had already been ongoing for two years. 

    As of press time, the company did not respond on the matter.

    “This [Blue Bay project] is a typical environmental problem that emerged recently in China. Even though the project is designed to restore and protect the environment, it has ended up damaging the local ecosystem either because of inappropriate designs or an incomplete risk assessment,” said Liu Jinmei, a lawyer with Friends of Nature.

    For now, the organization’s lawsuit is the birds’ best chance. The Blue Bay project will be completed in late 2022. Once the breakwater is finished and the flow of water reduced, the damage to the mudflats will be irreversible. 

    “It’s still not too late,” Liu said. “We have foreseen that the construction is very likely to bring irreversible damage to the habitat and could eventually cause decline to the migratory birds. So let’s stop it and avoid the worst possibility before the final result comes.”

    Contributions: Professor Ma Zhijun, School of Life Sciences Fudan University; editor: David Cohen.

    (Header image: Asian dowitchers are found at “Blue Bay” in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, Nov. 29, 2021. Courtesy of Spoon-billed Sandpiper)