The Silent Destruction of a South China Sea Coral Reef

In an article published today (21/10/2014) the SCMP details how a disputed reef in the South China Sea has been transformed into the largest island in the Spratlys. (“From reef to biggest island in Spratlys, and China’s not done yet at Fiery Cross“). Coral reefs are the predominant structure of these islands; the Spratly group contains over 600 coral reefs in total.

Fiery Cross – the reef – is China strategically important to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and it has been using reclamation to build it into an island to bolster its claim with a vital outpost for the Chinese military and civilian commercial activities to be based there. Fiery Cross Reef is about 740 nautical miles south of the Chinese mainland, but closer to the Vietnamese coast.


Last week, Taiwan’s top intelligence official, publicly said that Beijing was conducting seven construction projects in the South China Sea.

Wang Hanling, an expert on the South China Sea from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Fiery Cross Reef now nearly covered about 1 sq km and reclamation work would probably continue.

Over the weekend, Chinese website published a report saying Fiery Cross Reef had been upgraded to an island. It cited unnamed sources and satellite images from DigitalGlobe taken between late September and October 16. It said it was now bigger than Taiping island. However, Jin from Renmin University said it was unlikely the reef would be renamed an island, since it “would involve international law and would be too complicated”.

But among all the discussion of the strategic, military and geographical questions, one issue that should concern us all was completely omitted. The People’s Republic of China has clandestinely destroyed a reef in the South China Sea by dumping sand and rubble onto it and obliterating coral and marine life. All this has only now come out and assessing the damage to get a true picture will be almost impossible because according to China it isn’t doing anything and it’s virtually guaranteed they will not let any foreign scientists visit Fiery Cross. So while the West is doing its best to protect, conserve and rehabilitate reefs, China has just secretly destroyed one. This is the real news item that should have been the focus of the article.


Hong Kong Divers Damage Corals

A new study published this year has found that divers cause significant damage to corals on Hong Kong reefs. At most of the locations studied, the percentage of broken corals exceeded the recommended no-action threshold of 4%, which means management intervention is justified.

Scientists from Hong Kong’s Baptist University surveyed coral breakage from diving activities in Hong Kong using transects at seven different sites. The results show a total of 81 broken corals with 3–19 broken colonies per site. The team found a significant link between the number of broken coral colonies and the number of divers visiting the site.

Broken corals
Damaged Corals

The branching Acropora and the plate-like Montipora suffered more frequent damage than expected from their numbers. This means that some corals species are more vulnerable to damage from divers. The implication is that high numbers of divers may alter the species composition and ecology of the coral reefs as a whole.


Acropora coral
Acropora coral
Montipora coral

The study concludes that popular dive sites should be classed as “no-go’ areas for training divers.