Reefs unlikely to recover from the effects of China’s construction activities in the Spratly Islands

For nearly two years, China has been reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands and it is causing permanent damage to the marine environment.

In an interview for Earth Island Journal, National Scientist Edgardo Gomez holds that China’s land reclamation activities have several immediate effects including the “total destruction of productive coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other shallow marine ecosystems” and “the smothering of areas adjacent to the dredged and filled areas.”

Land reclamation or land fill is the process of creating new land from a waterway or wetland such as an ocean, riverbed or lakebed through, according to the article, “massive dredging of sand and corals, dumping sand on top of submerged and partially submerged reefs, and constructing giant concrete seawalls to protect manmade structures.”

“In other words, China is burying reefs under sand and concrete,” the article maintains.

Gomez, who provided significant contributions in speeding up the baseline mapping of the Philippines for use in the Spratly Islands territorial disputes, adds that it is “unlikely that the reefs will recover.”

“It’s like you have a forest,” he says in the interview. “And somebody comes along and burns down the forest. Theoretically, the forest can regrow because the substrate is still there. However, in this case, the reef has been buried in concrete and sand…. To use the analogy of the forest, not only did somebody cut down the forest, but they built concrete on top of it. So that’s what’s happened to all of these reefs…. There is no way they can recover. They are permanently gone.”

In another interview, this time for Science, Gomez described the waters around the Spratly Islands as “an oasis in the desert” where reefs “serve as nursing grounds for a lot of species” and “are important sources of larvae for of all kinds of marine life.” The article also made a claim on how “China’s island building is destroying reefs.”

Gomez told Science writer Christina Larson who called him from their Beijing office that “we don’t know how much area has been destroyed underwater by deep dredging” but “no productive ecosystem can survive” from it.

Gomez is a professor emeritus at the UP Diliman Marine Science Institute, of which he was founding director. He led the pioneering research works on invertebrate zoology, coral reef science and assessment, and invertebrate aquaculture, where he steered the world’s first national-scale assessment of damage to coral reefs. He also started giant clam breeding and distribution of juveniles to restock reefs and provide alternative incomes for coastal communities. In 2014, Gomez was conferred the rank of National Scientist of the Philippines for his research and conservation work in marine biology.