The parlous state of China’s coral reefs

What is the significance of the 2019 China Coral Report?

It’s hugely significant for coral research in China. It’s the first broad and systematic look at the state of the country’s coral reefs.

There have been several English-language reports on the subject. In 2004, a coral research team from SCSIO joined the Global Coral Research and Monitoring Network (GCRMN), and it publishes a report every four years.

But those reports are in English, and the sections on China just look at a few representative regions, such as Dongshan in Fujian; Daya Bay and Xuwen in Guangdong; and Sanya and Xisha in Hainan. They don’t offer a nationwide overview. Most importantly, that work is by the SCSIO’s coral reefs group only. The 2019 coral report includes research by over a dozen institutions – it’s China’s first genuinely national report.

When did monitoring of China’s coral reefs start?

SCSIO has been a key part of China’s coral research since the 1950s. More systematic monitoring by a coral sciences team started in 2002, and we joined the GCRMN in 2004. That monitoring and action network grew out of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and its East Asia region covers Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

What level is China’s research at internationally?

Around the world, monitoring is usually done by divers. Remote monitoring [using various technologies including satellites] has become more common in recent years too. China’s methods have been in line with international practice since 2004, and overall, our research keeps up with that of other countries. We’re quite good, and in some aspects take the lead, when it comes to restoring coral ecologies [such as by coral planting]. Central government inspections into restoration efforts by local authorities have helped sustained progress be made.

What prompted the writing of the report? And why are coral reef ecologies now of more interest?

The report came about after the 2018 founding of the Coral Reef Branch of the China Pacific Society. The branch is an NGO formed of institutions and individuals concerned about coral reefs, founded at SCSIO. It has over 100 members, including universities, research institutions, NGOs and individuals. The Coral Reef Branch enabled the planning of the report.

Funding came mainly from foundations, with the content derived from existing research by members. Only representative areas had been covered in that research, and so the report lacks continuity across time and space – something that needs improvement.

Getting the report completed was a lot of hard work. And while it might not have been a government-led project, it has led to more government attention being paid to coral reefs. Prior to 2005, China hadn’t carried out any overall survey of reefs. Research bodies were more focused on geology. Apart from Zou Renlin at SCSIO, there were very few researchers looking at coral reef ecologies. But in 2005 the first specific survey of coral reefs began – the 908 Project. After that, more attention was paid to reefs, and the data used in our 2019 report is drawn mainly from research carried out since then.

The number of research bodies and NGOs working in the field has been growing. The Guangxi University Coral Reef Research Centre, which contributed to the report, was founded in 2014. Diving charities Dive4love and Better Blue, both less than a decade old, work on coral reef conservation. And there is more government funding for surveys and research than before.

The South China Sea office of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration carries out regular monitoring of natural resources, but did not originally cover coral reefs. It now does, meaning better continuity of monitoring.

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