A new study by Professor Terry Hughes and Matthew Young of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University, and Dr Hui Huang of the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, published in the prestigious journal Conservation Biology describes the situation as a 'wicked problem' - meaning it has no easy solutions.
"A wicked problem is one that is very hard to solve without having a whole lot of other foreseen and unforeseen consequences to people, industries and to the environment itself," Prof Hughes explains.
"China's ongoing economic expansion has exacerbated many wicked environmental problems, including widespread habitat loss due to coastal development, unsustainable levels of fishing, and pollution," the report states.
"We found that coral abundance has declined by at least 80 per cent over the past 30 years on coastal fringing reefs along the Chinese mainland and adjoining Hainan Island. On offshore atolls and archipelagos claimed by six countries in the South China Sea, coral cover has declined from an average of >60 per cent to around 20 per cent within the past 10-15 years," it says
"So far, climate change has affected these reefs far less than coastal development, pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices. Ironically, these widespread declines in the condition of reefs are unfolding as China's research and reef-management capacity are rapidly expanding."
The corals of the South China Sea region cover an area of 30,000 square kilometres, have high conservation values, and support the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishers. The fact that some reefs are claimed by several different countries makes conservation and management particularly difficult.
"Typically, when a coral reef degrades it is taken over by seaweeds - and from there, experience has shown, it is very hard to return it to its natural coral cover. The window of opportunity to recover the reefs of the South China Sea is closing rapidly, given the state of degradation revealed in this study," Prof Hughes says.
The scientists conclude that the loss of coral cover in the South China Sea, as elsewhere, is due mainly to a failure of governance on the part of the nations responsible for the marine environment.
China and other countries in the region have recently established a number of marine parks, but they are too small and too far apart to prevent the decline in coral cover, he adds.
"Governing wicked problems becomes more challenging as they increase in extent from local to regional or global scales, particularly where institutions are weak or nonexistent," the scientists caution. Cases such as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by six different countries, highlight the dilemma.
"There is no quick fix to a wicked problem as complex as securing a sustainable future for coral reefs in China and the South China Sea," they add.
"We suggest that governance of China's coastal reefs can be improved by increasing public awareness, by legal and institutional reform that promotes progressive change, by providing financial support for training of reef scientists and managers, expanding monitoring of coral reef status and dynamics, and by enforcing existing regulations that protect reef ecosystems."
They suggest that China's centralised system of government is well-placed to quickly rescue the region's imperilled coral reefs in collaboration with neighbouring countries - but this will require innovative leadership and strong public support.
Their article "The Wicked Problem of China's Disappearing Coral Reefs" by Terry P. Hughes, Hui Huang and Matthew A.L. Young appears in the online edition of Conservation Biology.