China's booming economic growth is helping to degrade the country's coastal marine ecosystem at an alarming rate, despite the total population remaining steady, according to a new study.

A joint Chinese and American research team analyzed five decades of data from Chinese government records and found that the country's coastal marine ecosystem has steadily degraded to an almost irreversible point since 1978—the year the Chinese government introduced sweeping reform to industrialize the country's economy.

While China's population has held steady through that time, the economic growth has driven people from the country's interior farmland to the coast, and the combination of industrialization and a swelling coastal population is taking its toll on the marine environment, according to the researchers.

Qiang He, a marine ecologist from Beijing Normal University, led the research while a visiting scholar in Mark Bertness' lab at Brown University. He has studied coastal change in China for the best part of a decade and is first author on a study describing the research, published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Our paper shows that economic growth, not population growth, is major cause of China's coastal ecosystem changes," he concluded.

More people on the coast, less fish in the sea
And these ecosystem changes may only get worse, threatening the 28,000 different marine species that live along the coast as well as China's 1.3 billion people—half of whom live on the industrialized coast.

Before 1978, the diversity and size of China's fish species were steady, but since the economic reforms took place, both have been steadily decreasing. Coral cover in the South China Sea has crashed to 15 percent of pre-1978 levels, according to the study, and red tides—algal blooms that turn coastal waters a deep, biblical red and can be debilitating and fatal to marine life—have increased from around 10 each year before 1980 to between 70 and 120 each year since.

China's coastal gross domestic product growth and population movements mirror this coastal degradation. Between 1950 and the 1978 reforms, China's coastal GDP grew annually by around $2.2 billion. Between 1978 and 2010, China's coastal GDP increased by over two orders of magnitude with the country's coastal GDP contribution rising from 50 percent of the total to 60 percent. China's coastal population also increased from 260 million in 1954 to 400 million in 1978, and to 590 million in 2010.

During that time, China has been fueling its industrial and economic growth partly through massive development of its coastline. Mariculture and fishing activities have expanded to support local populations, pollution levels have increased, and miles of coastlines have been developed and filled in with mud to build larger and busier ports.

"The coastal degradation has been just phenomenal," said Mark Bertness, a marine ecologist at Brown who supervised the study. "The message here is without some kind of regulation on this, some kind of conservation, they're going to burn out the resource base."

"All of that stuff is going to be gone, and it's going to be gone in very short order," he added.

A 'red flag' for developing countries
China has been gaining attention internationally recently for its aggressive efforts to decarbonize its economy. Record-breaking levels of smog in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai over the winter spurred the government to declare a "war on pollution," investing heavily in renewable energy and technology to clean up its fossil fuel power plants. The country is also close to launching a nationwide carbon market (Greenwire, March 5).

Yet while air quality issues in China have been highly publicized, the study says it has been at the expense of water quality and the degradation of marine ecosystems. Coastal cities like Shenzhen and Fujian are not as populated and are more removed from the public eye, he added.

"The air pollution is very intense, it's very serious in the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai," he said. "But in coastal cities, populations are ... not as high as in those cities."

There has been a fair amount of research in China on coastal pollution, but Bertness said this is the first study to show that Chinese economic development is accelerating the country's coastal degradation.

China is also one of several nations pulling themselves out of the Third World this century through rapid industrialization. India, Brazil and other developing nations are following a similar trajectory, and Bertness said those countries should also keep an eye on how their industrial and economic development is effecting their coastal marine ecosystems.

"This should be a red flag for all of the developing countries, especially the Asian developing countries," Bertness said. "The nice thing about China was that there was this line in the sand—1978—when everything absolutely changed. But in reality, in a lot of Third World countries, the change has been almost as dramatic."

A 'mega-star' is born
Bertness was also proud of the work Qiang He did on the study. The young Chinese scientist—who gained the nickname "Q," after the James Bond scientist, while working at Bertness' lab—conceptualized the study almost by himself. But it took some work, Bertness said.

"His first few months in my lab were really kind of trying, because I was trying to get him to think creatively and get him to think of new different things to do," Bertness said. "One of things I stressed with him is if you really want to do something big in China, you want to do something no one in China has done yet."

After a few months of fruitlessly pitching research ideas to Bertness, Qiang came into his office one day and said he wanted to look into the effect of the 1978 economic reforms on marine environments in China.

"I looked at him and said, 'Yes, that's exactly what you need to do,'" Bertness recalled.

Bertness predicted that He, who is now a postdoctoral research associate at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, is going to be a "mega-star" in marine conservation and ecology in China.

"It was an amazing process watching him go through this metamorphosis," Bertness said. "This was really kind of a coming of age scientifically and creatively for Qiang."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500