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Artificial Island Building in the South China Sea, Marine Environment issues

Assessment of the Potential Environmental Consequences of Construction Activities on Seven Reefs in the Spratly Islands

Expert report of Dr. rer. nat. Sebastian C.A. Ferse, Professor Peter Mumby, PhD and Dr. Selina Ward, PhD

For the South China Sea arbitration, April 2016

Executive summary

This report reviews the scientific literature, other publicly available documents and information provided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) with regard to large-scale Chinese construction activities on seven reefs in the Spratly Islands (Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson Reef, Hughes Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef) from 2013 onwards.

Section II of this Report outlines the academic and professional background of the three authors. Section III provides background on the report, coral reefs, the impacts of fishing, reef accretion and island formation, and the South China Sea ecoregion.

Section IV provides an overview of the ecology and status of the Spratly Islands, and the seven affected reefs, prior to the commencement of large-scale construction activities.

In Sections V to VIII, the report further provides an overview over the types and extent of impacts from dredging and land reclamation activities, assessing the nature and extent of possible impacts on the seven affected reefs, the extent to which such impacts can be linked to the Chinese construction activities, their broader ecological ramifications, and the anticipated duration of impacts and potential for recovery of the reefs.

The remainder of the report independently assesses two previous expert reports compiled on behalf of the Philippines, as well as a number of statements by Chinese officials and scientists regarding the nature and effects of the construction activities.

The Spratly Islands are an area of high biodiversity and important fishing grounds. They are among the least impacted reefs in the South China Sea, and are very likely to play an important role in the maintenance of biodiversity and fisheries productivity in adjacent parts of the South China Sea and the Coral Triangle region. However, the area is not pristine, and has been significantly affected by anthropogenic impacts (i.e. impacts originating from human activity, such as overfishing and destructive fishing, construction activities and human habitation) for several decades prior to commencement of large-scale construction in 2013.

The construction activities have impacted reefs on a scale unprecedented in the region, and according to a 2016 study analysing satellite imagery have directly destroyed up to 60% of the shallow reef habitat of the affected reefs. Construction-related sedimentation and turbidity (i.e. decreased clarity of the water) are visible from available imagery to have affected large portions of the reefs beyond the immediate area of construction. The effects of these impacts on the reefs, together with altered hydrodynamics and released nutrients, are likely to have wide-ranging and long-lasting ecological consequences for the affected reefs and the wider ecosystem of the Spratly Islands, and possibly beyond. Reefs subjected to direct land reclamation have disappeared entirely. Reefs subjected to dredging in order to create landfill will have lost their complex structure that was built over centuries to millennia. This structure will take decades to centuries to recover. Reefs that did not experience dredging directly but were impacted by the associated sedimentation and nutrient release will likely have experienced severe coral mortality and recovery will take place more slowly than in natural settings, likely taking decades. The capacity for ongoing biogenic (i.e. stemming from living organisms) carbonate production is severely diminished on several of the reefs, and their capacity to keep up with increasing sea level rise is impaired.

As set out in Part IX of the Report, we have found the previous two expert reports submitted by the Philippines to be generally accurate descriptions of the construction impacts, based on the available information, although in some cases we argue that the damage has been overstated, whereas in others we feel that the potential damage might be underestimated.

The reviewed statements by Chinese officials and scientists contained accurate descriptions of the environmental conditions at the reefs, but their assessments regarding the nature and extent of impacts from construction were found to be largely in disagreement with the available information. We offer specific comments that detail in what respect the statements differ from our assessment of the information.

Download the report at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2993893-Independent-Expert-Report-Coral-Reef-Environment.html

Related articles:

Marine Environment Issues in the South China Sea: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/category/events-and-analyses/marine-environment-issues/

Artificial Island Building in the South China Sea: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/category/events-and-analyses/artificial-island-building-in-the-south-china-sea/

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