Human impact on Coral Reef Community Structure in the northern South China Sea: Chinese-Australian research

Global coral reefs have entered a distinctive human-dominated era, the Anthropocene, characterized by more frequent severe global coral bleaching events and regional-scale coral habitat degradation. Coastal areas around the world are usually densely populated regions that are under increasing pressure from urbanization, intensifying land use, and industrial development. Compared with remote, pristine coral reefs, inshore reefs are at higher risk of degradation due to a combination of natural and direct human impacts.

The South China Sea (SCS), a marginal sea in the western Pacific, has numerous fringing reefs and non-reef coral communities distributed around near shore islands and along the mainland coast of southern China. The northern SCS has been defined as one of the “highly impacted regions” in the world. Coral habitats in this region have experienced significant declines in coral cover and biodiversity during recent decades.

Direct evidence of acute and chronic disturbance on most inshore coral assemblages is limited. Long-term, periodical surveys and historical baseline data essential for effective management are lacking, especially in the SCS and the vast majority of coral reefs over the Indo-Pacific .

Recently, researchers led by Prof. Chen Tianran from South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Professor Zhao Jianxin from the University of Queensland, Australia, have made the latest progress in the study of coral reef dynamics in the northern South China Sea. The study was published in Science of the Total Environment.

china coral bleaching event china dialogue ocean
A coral reef off the Xisha islands after a bleaching event in the summer of 2020 

Using high-precision uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating technology, they reconstructed a ~100-year-long history of extensive coral loss, changes in coral community structure, and a shifting baseline. The data were collected at Weizhou Island, northern SCS, which has highly disturbed inshore coral habitats that are typical globally. According to their U-Th dates, major coral mortalities around Weizhou Island have occurred since the 1950s, with increasing frequency and severity since the 1980s. Prior to this collapse, the local coral community structure sustained remarkable long-term stability over millennia. The timing of the Acropora loss and massive coral mortalities coincides with multiple acute and chronic, natural and anthropogenic disturbance events.“Finding new, efficient, and cost-effective restoration technologies is an urgent research need” said Prof. Chen, “but priority should be given to directly addressing the causes of degradation and effectively controlling chronic disturbances before attempting to restore reef ecosystems.”

Source: South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, March 16, 2021

TianranChen*#ShuLi*#JianxinZhao, YuexingFengUranium-thorium dating of coral mortality and community shift in a highly disturbed inshore reef (Weizhou Island, northern South China Sea). Science of The Total Environment, 2020, 752, 15 January 2021, 141866.


China started researching its coral reefs in the 1950s, but only a few institutions and scientists were involved, with little overall planning or funding. The scope and continuity of research were therefore limited. The year 2005 saw the launch of the largest survey of China’s coastal waters – the 908 Project. Since then, better coastal management and protection has led to more robust coral reef conservation and research. There are now coral research and monitoring teams at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Natural Resources, as well as some universities. NGOs have also been getting involved.

Founded in January 1959, The South China Sea Institute of Oceanology (SCSIO) is one of the largest marine research institutes in China, and one of the Chinese Academy of Science knowledge generating institute. It has 388 staff member, 47 research scientists, 43 PhD -advising Professors. SCSIO is featured by a postdoctoral research station and a Ph.D degree program in fields of Marine Biology, Physical Oceanography, Marine Geology, Marine Chemistry, and Marine Environment.

In December 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture published an action plan for coral reef protection. It included a target for over 90% of key coral reef areas to be protected by 2030, as well as for a small increase in the extent of living reef corals and an improvement in coral health.

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