As northeast China freezes over with the onset of winter, cranes fly south to Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater wetland sanctuary, along with hundreds of thousands migratory wild birds. For birds that feed on tubers of submerged aquatic plants, such as the critically endangered Siberian crane, the threatened and declining swan goose and thousands of tundra swans, Poyang’s food-rich winter wetlands are essential to their survival. However, dams along the Yangtze River and increasing flooding disrupt the natural rise and fall of water levels necessary for the development of aquatic plants in Poyang. Poorly regulated and expansion of sand dredging in the Yangtze River and Poyang Lake increases turbulence in the water, limiting light reaching aquatic plants on which migrating birds depend.
In recent years, as part of President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on ecological civilization and strengthening biodiversity protection, the Chinese government has implemented a number of policies to address the growing threats of development of wetlands like Poyang. Ecological restoration demands, bans on coastal land reclamation and fishing, and crackdowns on construction in nature reserves are all encouraging developments that Chinese conservationists have long called for.
Unfortunately, these policies are exploited for other purposes that do not necessarily improve the ecological environment. For example, local governments conduct “ecological restoration” projects that replace vital intertidal flats with new “pristine sandy beaches” or “water conservation projects” that aim to stimulate local economic growth, such as the expansion of tourism or agricultural crops. Such projects are used to justify the Poyang Lake dams which threaten wetland biodiversity, especially migratory waterbirds. To avoid such harmful solutions, China’s conservation policies and regulations require stronger oversight and, importantly, more local flexibility and community engagement.
Salt oasis threatened
Every autumn, thousands of tourists visit Panjin Red Beach in northeast China to admire the vibrant colors of the Liao River Estuary Coastal Nature Reserve. The red color of the vast salt marshes comes from the native shrub seeps and sea-blites (Suaeda). The salt marshes provide important food resources for migrating red-crowned cranes and nesting habitat for rare Saunders’ gulls. These salt pans were once found all along China’s Yellow Sea coastline. However, in recent decades these natural marshes have been lost through a combination of coastal wetland reclamation (now prohibited) and the relentless advance of an aggressive alien plant – smooth cordgrass (Spartina)—which forms dense carpets of tall vegetation which exclude other plants and alter the nature of the soil. Invasive cordgrass reduces the diversity and abundance of rich benthic communities (meaning the bottom-dwelling plants and animals) of the salt marshes, as well as the adjacent tidal mudflats that were once home to thousands of migrating shorebirds.
The good news for China’s degraded coastal salt marshes and mudflats lost to invasive cordgrass is that widely available herbicides are very effective in controlling and eradicating invasive species. Fortunately, herbicides do not harm benthic communities and the ecological environment. This paves the way, literally, for the recovery and restoration of native salt marsh habitats and red beaches. Since eradication requires comprehensive approaches to prevent recolonisation, it is essential that nature reserve managers and local and national authorities engage and coordinate in their strategy.
A 2018 ban on the restoration of coastal tidal areas has been instrumental in conserving important coastal ecosystems like these, leading to their listing as World Heritage Sites under the umbrella of the UN. Migratory Bird Sanctuary Initiative along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Gulf. These protections are important, but more needs to be done to resolve conflicts between nature reserves and local development.
Every fall, exhausted and hungry herds of Siberian cranes arrive in the wetlands of northeastern China after their marathon through the Russian boreal forest from breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra. They seek out large areas of shallow water where they can feed on tubers of emergent wetland plants during the day and roost sheltered from predators at night. Historically, these wetlands were widespread in the rather arid lands of the region, but the rapid development of agriculture and infrastructure has put pressure on water resources.
Nature reserves established in China’s northeast region have overshadowed traditional agricultural practices, often leading to stress over the water the reserves need to protect critical wetlands for birds and the water needs of local communities. cultures.
At Lake Poyang and other wetlands, the International Crane Foundation (ICF) works with local fishing communities to manage water levels in small lakes to support both fishing and the creation of habitats for cranes. The risk is that without incentives for farmers to manage water levels for fishing, sluice gates can remain closed, creating deep water lakes or open, draining lakes.
Punishments for ecological protection
Xi Jinping based the development of the Yangtze River Economic Basin Initiative on maintaining ecological integrity and restoring the river ecosystem and instituted a ten-year fishing ban. The ban could help many species of fish rebound, boosting biodiversity. However, the ban has been harsh on fishing communities. Programs could be put in place for local fishers to promote sustainable artisanal fishing that supports ecological restoration and keeps rural economies healthy. By refining water management in lakes, ideal conditions for migrating birds can be created.
The ban on fishing on the Yangtze River also covers the farming of crayfish and crabs, forcing farmers to abandon their farms and causing the escape of crayfish, which are spreading rapidly in natural wetlands, devouring all aquatic vegetation vital for the ecological health of wetlands and food for many species of migratory birds.
In nature reserves in northeast China, the ban on all infrastructure means that even small modifications to aging water control structures that are needed to restore shallow wetlands for cranes are prohibited. The International Crane Foundation has worked with Momoge and Xianghai Nature Reserves to mimic natural wetland processes that include vegetation management, periodic drying, rewetting and water flow management, to create shallow wetlands with sedges that cranes feed on during migration seasons. However, recent blanket infrastructure bans are hampering such projects and mean wetlands are drying out or choking with reeds, which is not helping the key species the reserves are trying to protect.
Call for more political flexibility
Some argue that policies must be strictly enforced for reasons of fairness, and that exceptions can set precedent and a perceived undermining of the intent of policy measures. However, with a little local flexibility, small adjustments – like helping farmers and fishers become leaders in protecting critical crane habitats – could help achieve environmental policy goals and avoid associated unintended negative impacts. to a brutal implementation of the policy.
Spike Millington is vice president and director for Asia of the International Crane Foundation, based in Wisconsin. From 2012 to 2017 he was Managing Director of the East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership, for the conservation of migratory waterbirds in the 22 flyway countries and from 2005 to 2010 UNDP Chief Technical Advisor for the EU-China Biodiversity Programme.
Sources: NOAA, Reuters, Sixth Tone, UNESCO
Main photo credit: Black-necked Crane roosting on the Tibetan Plateau of Chinacourtesy of Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock.com.