China called out for destructing coral reefs in South China Sea

The global appeal to save vulnerable coral reefs against the backdrop of global warming is getting stronger, but the actions of the Chinese government and fishermen appear rather working in the opposite direction-- aggravating the loss of crucial underwater ecosystems. Land reclamation activities and illegal ornament trade by the Chinese have destroyed thousands of acres of coral reefs in the South China Sea.
April 10, 2024 | 16:00

The Chinese activities were captured in commercial satellite imagery analysis that was conducted by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTY), a part of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “The results show that China has caused the most reef destruction through dredging and landfill, burying roughly 4,648 acres of reefs,” it said, reported the features.csis.

It feared that the actual destruction could be in a greater amount than the actual estimate. China is blamed for violating environmental regulations and defying objections raised by the countries in the South China Sea region. Chinese actions are going to have serious negative effects on marine biodiversity, scientists warned.

Beijing government has been laying claims on different archipelagos in South China as it is building artificial islands to set up military bases. This however is causing huge and irreversible damage to the coral reefs. China termed the AMTY-CSIS report “false”.However, China has been called out time and again for its harmful activities in the South China Sea by different organisations.

In 2016, while rejecting China’s claim on the 90 percent of the South China Sea, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) condemned Beijing for causing environmental damage by building artificial islands. “China’s land reclamation and construction of artificial islands, installations, and structures …has caused severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem,” it had said.

A study by the Yale School of Environment showed how China ports, radar equipment, and airstrips on artificial islands were built with piles of sand onto offshore reefs. “Based on satellite information, computer-modelling data, and previous studies of human impacts on coral reefs, scientists are concerned that China’s campaign may be causing irreparable damage,” it said.

The study revealed 99 percent of damage to coral reefs in the South China Sea occurred due to China’s island-building, which may imperil the system of genetic diversity and biological connectivity. A professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia, said “What you’re essentially talking about is destroying the equivalent of seven worldwide natural heritage areas.”

The AMTY-CSIS report highlighted the cutter suction dredging-- considered the most detrimental to the environment—being used by China has disturbed the seafloor, killed nearby marine life and sapped the coral reef’s capacity to repair itself. “So when we totalled the number of reefs destroyed by both dredging and landfill, we found that China has actually destroyed 4,500 acres [18 square miles] of reefs through dredging and landfill,” said Monica Sato, a researcher at AMTY-CSIS.

Coral reefs in South China face threats from Chinese fishermen as well. About 16,300 acres of coral reefs are believed to be damaged due to giant clam harvesting by Chinese fishermen. The giant clams have a big demand as their shells, which have a resemblance to elephant ivory, are used for jewellery-making. Each shell costs around USD 106,000.

Hainan province of China is the centre of illegal clam trade. “These carvings of statues and jewellery are sold in the black market. It’s supposed to be illegal. Nevertheless, there’s been documented evidence of it happening,” said Harrison Prétat, Deputy Director of CSIS, according to the

Giant clams are vital to the health of reef ecosystems. After analysing commercial satellite imagery on a total of 181 occupied and unoccupied features of the South China Sea, AMTY-CSIS concluded that Chinese clam harvesting led to the destruction of 16,535 acres of coral reef, according to the cnn.

Chinese activities are turning detrimental for its neighbour as well. The Philippines has criticised China for turning a large tract of colourful coral reefs under its maritime boundary into a wasteland. “The continued swarming for the indiscriminate illegal and destructive fishing activities of the Chinese Maritime Militia in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment in the [West Philippine Sea] features,” said country’s coast guard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela.

Tarah Nguyen
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