Turning a Harmful Tide

By Jianbin Shi and Wang Wenqing

With a nationwide program to restore its mangroves, China can lead the way in restoring, safeguarding these vital ecosystems

Known as the “guardians of the seashore” and “ocean forests”, mangroves are one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, providing many important services, including prevention of coastal erosion, protection from storm surges and sea-level rise, water purification, carbon sequestration, habitat for unique biodiversity, and provision of local livelihoods.

It is estimated that mangrove ecosystem services are worth $33,000 to $57,000 per hectare per year.

Yet despite their incredible values, mangrove forests are being destroyed and degraded as a result of human activities, exacerbated by climate change. About half of the world’s mangroves have been lost just in the past half century and, at this rate, mangroves could be gone altogether within this century unless we take action now to turn the tide.

A joint study recently released by the Paulson Institute, Laoniu Foundation and Shenzhen Mangrove Conservation Foundation concludes that despite the global trend, China has made substantial achievements in mangrove conservation and restoration in recent decades. China has put in place a set of laws and regulations such as the Forest Law, the Marine Environmental Protection Law and the National Wetland Conservation and Restoration Scheme, all of which include provisions to protect mangroves.

At the same time, China has enhanced its efforts to restore mangroves, including the National Mangrove Forest Conservation Program initiated in 2001 and the National Plan for Construction of Coastal Shelterbelt System (2016-25). These initiatives have helped China’s mangrove forest area increase from 22,000 hectares in 2000 to around 29,000 hectares in 2019, making the country one of the few in the world to log a net increase. Thirty-eight mangrove-oriented protected areas have been established on the Chinese mainland, and over 50 percent of natural mangrove forests are under protection, far exceeding the world’s average level of 25 percent.

However, as the joint study reveals, many challenges and issues remain to improve the protection, restoration and management of mangroves in China.

There has been substantial degradation of mangroves in some places, caused by pollution from aquaculture, exotic invasive species, and construction of sea walls which block the connection between mangroves and inland ecosystems.

The rise in mangrove forest area in China has been mostly attributed to artificial plantation of mangroves on mudflats over the past two decades. The success rate of artificial plantation is low because of inappropriate siting and unsuitable conditions, as well as a lack of post-plantation maintenance, and the costs are high. Artificial plantation could even cause ecological damage if using a limited number of mangrove species or even alien invasive mangroves for afforestation. Furthermore, mangrove plantation on intertidal mudflats sometimes destroys or occupies important habitats for other wildlife, such as migratory waterbirds and benthic animals. More efforts are needed to encourage natural restoration and restoration of the entire mangrove wetland ecosystem, rather than mangrove forest only.

Returning fish ponds to mangrove forests is a more effective way of restoring mangrove ecosystem functions. A large number of fish ponds in China’s coastal area could be returned to mangrove forests. However, the funding needed to compensate fish pond owners and the lack of specific standards and technical guidance for returning fish ponds to mangroves have prevented this restoration from being widely adopted.

Mangrove forests account for only a small percentage of the total forest area in China, but they have attracted the attention of Chinese leaders. On April 19,2017, President Xi Jinping urged protection of mangrove forests while inspecting the Golden Gulf Mangrove Ecological Protection Zone in Beihai city in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. And, on 8 June 2020, the  theme of World Oceans Day in China was set as “Protecting mangroves, Protecting Ocean Ecosystems”, indicating the government’s efforts to increase public recognization of the valuable functions of mangroves. A social climate conducive to the conservation and restoration of mangroves is emerging in China.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and National Forestry and Grassland Administration jointly conducted a comprehensive and detailed inventory of mangrove forests and coastal areas suitable for mangrove restoration in 2019, and a nationwide mangrove restoration program is being developed.

China recently released its comprehensive Overall Plan for Protection and Restoration of Important Ecosystems (2020-35). One of the targets is to safeguard at least 35 percent of the country’s natural coastlines and prevent the marine ecological condition from worsening through various key projects, including protection and restoration of mangrove ecosystems.

With all these in mind, we are confident that a golden opportunity for mangrove conservation and restoration is coming in China. As recommended by the joint study, to strengthen the health of mangrove ecosystems, the following measures and actions should be adopted and undertaken:

First, treat mangroves as an entire wetland ecosystem, rather than a simple forest, and shift restoration to cover the entire mangrove wetland ecosystem and its functions, including habitats for other wildlife such as birds, benthic organisms and fish.

Second, modify and formulate standards and evaluation systems for mangrove restoration which focus on natural recovery, with artificial recovery as a supplementary means, and improve the income of surrounding residents while restoring mangrove forests.

Third, artificial plantation on the intertidal mudflats should be carried out only on those mudflats that are assessed to be suitable for mangrove afforestation and avoid negative impacts on important intertidal habitats for sea grasses and waterbirds.

Fourth, develop technical guidelines and standards to facilitate returning fish ponds to mangroves.

Fifth, establish community-based models and mechanisms for the protection, ecological restoration and management of mangroves, whereby local communities are encouraged to actively participate in and benefit from the protection and restoration of mangrove ecosystems.

During the course of mangrove conservation and restoration, China must learn experience and lessons from other countries, but what’s equally important, given that research on mangroves in China ranks among the best in the world, is to export its knowledge and successful case studies. It is hoped that mangrove conservation and restoration can become a new bridge to link China with other countries, particularly those involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Jianbin Shi is an advisor to the Paulson Institute and associate professor of the School of Environment at Beijing Normal University. Wang Wenqing is the leading expert of the joint study and associate dean of the College of Environment and Ecology at Xiamen University. This article first appeared in China Daily.

A Comment from Wendy Paulson, Chairman, Bobolink Foundation:

“Mangroves are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth.  They are home to unique wildlife, provide nurseries for fish and other marine creatures, and offer valuable services to the human population. Mangroves protect against storm surges,  purify water, sequester carbon, and sustain local livelihoods.  Globally, they have declined by 50% in the last few decades, often victim to reclamation, dredging, and pollution.  China has invested a great deal in efforts to restore mangroves around its coast. It has bucked the global trend with an expansion of the total area of mangroves in the last twenty years.  However, as the new joint report by the Paulson Institute, Lao Niu Foundation and Shenzhen Mangrove Conservation Foundation makes clear, there is still much to improve in mangrove ecosystem restoration methodology.  As a strategic advisor to the Shenzhen Mangrove Conservation Foundation, I applaud the efforts of the Foundation and others to build on the progress so far and to take mangrove conservation and restoration to the next level. The experience and expertise gained will be valuable not only to China but also to other countries that are blessed with these wonderful ecosystems.”