China's Artificial Islands In South China Sea Are Harming Environment, Hague Tribunal Says : Parallels China has been creating artificial islands out of reefs. Environmentalists say the process is killing off coral and giant clams.

One Result Of China's Buildup In South China Sea: Environmental Havoc

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There is an environmental crisis in the South China Sea. It's one of the world's most biodiverse regions, but huge swaths of coral reef and marine life are being destroyed. An international tribunal recently found that China's activities in the region are to blame. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Just over a month ago, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued two important rulings. One soundly rejected Beijing's extensive claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea. The second ruling focused on whether China had caused environmental damage as it constructed artificial islands in the region. Kent Carpenter, a professor of biological science at Old Dominion University, says its findings were nothing short of damning.

KENT CARPENTER: The Tribunal clearly decided that China had caused severe harm to the coral reef's environment, and in addition, that it had violated its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems.

NORTHAM: The Tribunal found that damage to the coral reefs in the Spratly Islands is extensive, affecting more than 30 square miles. A third of that is caused by China's island-building, turning pristine reefs into permanent military outposts, including massive runways, said the tribunal. John McManus, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Miami, says the Chinese use huge dredgers to pull up sand and anything else in their way.

JOHN MCMANUS: They're using a grinding ball. It's got grooves and teeth, and it spins around and tears up living coral and parts of the coral reef substrate to make more gravel and sand to be sucked up and used for island-building.

NORTHAM: McManus says, via Skype, that the dredgers also create plumes of sediment. When it lands, it smothers coral, fish, whole marine ecosystems. He says this has been devastating to an area which is home to much of the world's coral and fish species.

MCMANUS: We're talking about some of the highest diversity in the world. You may have 70 species of coral, roughly, in the Caribbean, about 70 or so in Hawaii, but here we're talking well over 400 species of coral. And it's the same ratios for fish and invertebrates.

NORTHAM: However destructive the island-building is, it's nothing compared to the damage done by the poaching of giant clams, says Old Dominion University's Carpenter. He says Chinese fishermen are destroying entire reefs as they use their propellers to try to dredge up the clams.

CARPENTER: The action of the propeller uncovers and breaks up all of the corals so that the giant clams are easy to extract.

NORTHAM: The International Tribunal found the Chinese government had basically turned a blind eye to the poaching of giant clams. University of Miami's McManus says the poachers helped China back up its claim that it's only building artificial islands on dead coral reefs.

MCMANUS: So in a way, China's not lying. They're telling the truth. They actually built on dead coral because the Chinese fishers had already killed the coral.

NORTHAM: McManus says Beijing has recently started cracking down on the poachers. But Edgardo Gomez, a marine biologist at the University of the Philippines, says it may be too late.

EDGARDO GOMEZ: There are half a dozen species of giant clams in the world, and all of the living clams have all been virtually wiped out of the of the South China Sea. And, mind you, the giant clams are endangered species.

NORTHAM: China was invited but did not provide evidence to the Tribunal to back up its claims that it had done extensive environmental studies before constructing islands. Carpenter says there's concern China will continue building up islands and destroying the environment.

CARPENTER: If it does, then it will begin to lose all of its credibility with regard to its own international obligations.

NORTHAM: Carpenter says even if China abandoned the artificial islands, the environment in the area could take decades, if ever, to come back. Tearing down the islands at this point, he says, would cause more damage than has already been done. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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