Wildlife Starves on Emptied Wetland

Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Photo: Katsuyuki Kon)

Tens of thousands of migrating birds are facing starvation because the world's largest land reclamation project has all but destroyed their most important refuelling station. At least two bird species face extinction while other wildlife, including shellfish, fish and plants, is being harmed by the closure, one year ago, of a 33-mile seawall to drain Saemangeum Wetland in South Korea.

Algae are blooming in the dank puddles that remain and thick scum lines the estuary's few creeks and channels. Vast stretches of shellfish beds, and thousands of plants, lie dead on the parched mud now covering most of the site. The tidal range of the 155-square mile wetland has dropped from seven metres to just 17 centimetres and all but 30 of the 400 boats that fished estuary waters have been grounded as a result.

Yet there are no firm plans to compensate for this wildlife and economic tragedy and conservationists are appealing to the UK government to help save what remains of the site.

The Saemangeum project was hatched to create paddy fields but there is insufficient clean water for irrigation. "Now they are talking about building a golf course, a huge casino or even a Formula 1 race track," says the RSPB's Sarah Dawkins, who is currently working as a volunteer to help monitor the impact on birds of the seawall. "It would be like putting a casino on The Wash."

"Estuaries should be fantastic places, full of the bustle of shorebirds feeding on shellfish and worms in the mud and sand. The wall has blocked the life-giving ebb and flow of the sea, boats are stranded waiting for a tide that will never come and the mudflats are strewn with mile upon mile of litter. Saemangeum really was the jewel in the crown yet all around me the place is dying."

Saemangeum is the region's most important refuelling post for around 400,000 migrating waders negotiating a 15,000-mile round trip between the southern hemisphere and south-east Asia, and breeding sites in Alaska and Russia. At the height of migration, over 150,000 waders of more than 25 species seek food at Saemangeum in a single day.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank face extinction as their remaining populations rely on the tidal flats of the Yellow Sea and on Saemangeum in particular. More than 100,000 Great Knot, a third of the world's population, have been seen at Saemangeum in one day and these birds could be too poorly fed this year to survive their final flight north. Internationally important numbers of 26 other bird species used the estuary before it was drained.

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Saemangeum has always been a haven for migratory birds and for birdwatchers but as World Migratory Birds Day was celebrated around the globe, experts are monitoring the impact of the Saemangeum reclamation project on the anniversary of its completion.

The seawall took 15 years to build due of a succession of legal challenges from conservationists. The area was also the lifeblood of 25,000 people from fishing communities on the Yellow Sea coast.

A chink of light still glimmers, however, for the birds whose fate seems almost sealed. Sluice gates have been built into the Saemangeum sea-wall, which if kept open would save at least part of the wetland.

Birds Korea, a conservation group in South Korea, wants the UK government and the EU, together with governments elsewhere, to offer support to South Korean authorities in conserving and managing Saemangeum. The group is also urging people to write to the South Korean embassy in the UK calling for the sluice gates to be kept open.

Nial Moores, Director of Birds Korea, said: "International appeals to the authorities here in South Korea would underline just how precious Saemangeum is. The Ministry of Agriculture claims that the Saemangeum birds will just move to neighbouring estuaries but the birds there are already fighting over food and at least one of these estuaries may also be reclaimed."

Ms Park Meena, National Coordinator of Birds Korea, said: "Saemangeum could be a huge lure for eco-tourists from all over the world if it was restored. The birds are still coming and parts of the site are still alive so there is a chance we can save it. If the sluice gates were opened the tides would return, restoring life to the mudflats and bringing food both to the birds and people with whom they co-exist."

To find more information on the project, visit Birds Korea.
Written by: RSPB