Good news for a Thursday: the Yellow Sea secures World Heritage listing

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Good news for a Thursday: the Yellow Sea secures World Heritage listing

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It's Good Friday tomorrow, so I have brought forward my weekly good news slot.  Here, my colleague Nicola Crockford, who recently celebrated 25 years working at the RSPB, tells the story of the recent inclusion of the Yellow Sea on the UNESCO tentative World Heritage List.


There are some sites that are important for migrating birds and then there are others that are so fundamentally critical that their loss would spell the probable extinction of some species.

The coast of the Yellow Sea is one such place. Situated in between China and the Korean peninsula, it is the most important area for the millions of waterbirds that funnel down and back each year from breeding areas as far north as Siberia and Alaska, to wintering areas as far south as Australia and New Zealand and as far west as India.

The last few decades have seen an unprecedented rate of conversion due to industrial and other developments of the vital tidal mudflats and associated coastal wetlands. Today, in Nature Communications, a definitive paper that looks at trends in 10 shorebird species that spend the northern winter in Australia and New Zealand, provides the smoking gun; those species that have suffered catastrophic declines in the last 25 years are those most dependent on the Yellow Sea as a staging site. 

Luckily, a recent decision of immense foresight by the Chinese authorities has added 14 key coastal sites of the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea as potential World Heritage sites. When nominated, together with sites from South Korea, and potentially North Korea, with which it shares the Yellow Sea, this stands to be the greatest site for migratory birds in the world.

The RSPB, through BirdLife International and the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, has been deeply involved in this story since 2010 when the spoon-billed sandpiper became a top priority for our international species recovery work. This bird is the most critically endangered of all the species that depend on the Yellow Sea and as such acts as a flagship for the work here.

We soon realised that besides supporting the emergency captive breeding of the species and addressing illegal killing on its migratory route, we had to seek the conservation of the vital Yellow Sea staging areas where they refuel on spring and autumn migration, and moult in the autumn.

Working with the IUCN and officials from both China and South Korea, we’ve been able to highlight the importance of the Yellow Sea ecosystem and the need for robust protection.

So, you can imagine our reaction on hearing the astonishing news, adding to China’s growing reputation as a world leader in biodiversity conservation, that China has just added 14 of the most important coastal wetland sites on the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. World Heritage designation is the strongest global protected area designation in the world. Even just the first step of adding a site to the tentative list can give protection that is second to none, because for the subsequent nomination to be successful, top quality conservation provisions must be put in place and the integrity of the site ensured.

Inevitably with an initial listing of that speed, not all the key sites are included. For example one absentee is Chongming Dongtan in Shanghai, with which the RSPB has a long standing relationship,. However, there is every chance that during the arduous nomination process, such missing sites can be included.

This news is the first definite sign of hope, for those many people in the Yellow Sea countries and around the world, not least in the BirdLife Partnership and East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, who have been deeply concerned by the catastrophic declines of East Asian Australasian Flyway waterbirds dependent on the Yellow Sea. China and Korea are to be congratulated for the vision and leadership they are showing in recognising and conserving the outstanding global importance of their Yellow Sea coasts, and should be encouraged and supported in relation to these efforts and all further steps that they take in this respect.

For more information on the World Heritage Listing see here.

  • This is a most encouraging move by China for which they should take much credit. China is a country that does seem to take the "long view" from time to time. "Wisdom requires the long view" something which in this country our politicians seem to be very lacking.

    I seem to remember the "good cause" at the  Bird Fair Year or so ago was for the east Asia Flyway. It looks as though some of that money is bearing fruit.

    Many congratulations to Birdlife International, the RSPB, and the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, without all your hard work I am sure this would not have happened. Keep up your brilliant efforts,I am sure you will.