Friday, April 8, 2016

South China Sea Images reveal impact on coral of Beijing's military bases

South China Sea Images reveal impact on coral of Beijing's military bases

As China races to extend its military reach, it is turning pristine habitats into permanent islands. Satellite images of the South China Sea show rapid destruction of some of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world. The reclamation of land in the contested Spratly archipelago to build runways, military outposts and even small towns is endangering ecosystems that are key to maintaining world fish stocks and biodiversity

Fiery Cross Reef

22 January 2006 – 28 June 2015

High-resolution satellite images of the South China Sea have revealed a colossal and rapid destruction of some of the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs as China races to turn the pristine habitats into military outposts.
Prof​​ John McManus, a leading marine biologist who analysed the images, has told the Guardian the loss of thousands of acres of reef in recent years constitutes the quickest rate of permanent loss of coral reef area in human history.
“Our generation holds temporary responsibility for passing these highly diverse and incredibly beautiful coral reef atolls to future generations,” McManus says. “We have failed miserably.”
Six countries – China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei – have competing claims to the more than 250 islands, reefs and sandbars in the South China Sea. The islands are mostly uninhabited but rapid reclamation is endangering ecosystems that are key to maintaining world fish stocks and biodiversity.
The island-building is expanding. This week, new photos show China is constructing a third airstrip on reclaimed territory, giving it an even greater reach in the area.
In the race to assert territorial claims, competing countries have dredged sand on to reefs to build runways, military outposts and even small towns. Coral has been drowned in sand and marine ecosystems have been devastated. Isolated armed conflict has erupted in the decades-long dispute – and tensions are at an all-time high.

Mischief Reef

24 January 2012 – 10 June 2015

Satellite images, provided by the Asia maritime transparency initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, show China is at the forefront of this political standoff. Photos taken over the past decade of four of the main islands it is reclaiming – Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Johnson’s Reef – shows analarming rate of destruction.
“The photo of Mischief Reef is particularly disturbing,” says McManus, an expert in m​​arine b​​iology and f​​isheries at the University of Miami. The reef covers an area of about 45m sq metres​, not including dense corals that extend dozens of metres deep.
“The sand and silt stirred up by the dredgers covers most of the lagoon and is settling out on most of the remaining reef. The sand will kill nearly any bottom-dwelling organisms on which it settles in large quantities, and clog the gills of most fish. I don’t expect to find any fish surviving within that lagoon except in the very southern areas,” he says.
The images provide clues to the scale of the underwater desolation. Dredged silt can be seen to be forming in strands instead of plumes. This is caused by a reaction from the millions of tiny polyps on the coral reef to the dredging, exuding copious amounts of mucous in a desperate attempt to remove the sediment, McManus says.
“In this picture, the huge masses of mucous coming off the millions of dying corals are mixing with silt, forming bright white strands hundreds of metre​s long. In the lagoon, the mucous is mixing with the decaying bodies of organisms,” McManus says. The sand, which will smell horribly for months from the rot, will be very low in oxygen, preventing any fish from resettling. “A substantial amount of this damage is irrecoverable and irreplaceable.”

Subi Reef

8 August 2012 – 5 June 2015

The dispute, which has drawn in the US and Japan, is complicated by untapped oil and gas reserves below the South China Sea, one of the most lucrative shipping channels in the world.
Prof Terry Hughes, a coral specialist, says the image of Subi Reef is particularly​ worrying. “Building new manmade islands on top of shallow reefs is smothering them with sediment, and turning clear water muddy – the environmental damage is substantial and unprecedented in scale,” he says.
“Coral reefs in the South China Sea are increasingly threatened by overfishing and climate change, and now they will struggle to cope with this additional impact of massive amounts of dredging to create new military outposts. What we need is a breakthrough in cooperation, aimed at protecting fragile reef ecosystems rather than destroying them.”
The South China Sea accounts for 10% ​​of global fish stocks, the UN environment programme​ estimates. The reefs provide a refuge for economically important fish during their life cycle and therefore play an “important role in recruitment and maintenance of fish stocks”, it says​.
The smallest of the four islands analysed by the Guardian, Johnson’s Reef, is built slightly away from the protective reef crest. But the images show sand was dredged from other reefs in the South China Sea, ​Hughes says.
“More than 20​ reefs in the Spratly area show such signs of serious ecological damage," he adds. "This will negatively impact fisheries locally on the reefs and across the South China Sea, a region of the world in which marine fish are crucial to jobs, culture, nutrition, economies, and peace.”