|Algae bloom, Qingdao|
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.
...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."
The sheer density of China's coastal population boom presents enormous challenges in the context of sea level rise and saltwater inundation of coastal freshwater resources as well as the destruction of coastal fisheries. If recent predictions of fairly massive and abrupt sea level rise over the next few decades become reality Beijing could face a massive challenge of relocating hundreds of millions of citizens retreating from the sea. It would be the same story across south, east and southeast Asia and it would spell immense dislocation, suffering and instability.