The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's Defence of the
Saemangeum Reclamation: Credible Science or Wishful Thinking?
An Independent Birds Korea Report (second draft) N. Moores, September 2003
(Edited by Dr David Wells, with additional editing by Drs. Clive Minton and Philip Battley.)


Executive Summary

1. Introduction

2. Response to The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's Argument

2.1 “Agricultural freshwater lakes ranked 1st through 7th based on the number of birds”

2.2 “Furthermore, snipes and plovers (shorebirds) easily move their habitat to the Gomso Bay, Geum River
estuary or other tidal flat (239,000ha)”

2.2.1 Case Study 1: The Oosterschelde/Krammer-Volkerak, the Netherlands

2.2.2 Case Study 2: Cardiff Bay, the United Kingdom

2.2.3 Case Study 3. Red Knot Calidris canutus declines at the population level due to changes in human use of
the Delaware Bay, USA

2.2.4 Optimal versus Suboptimal conditions for shorebirds

2.2.5 Comparison of the Saemangeum estuarine system with Geum estuary and Gomso Bay

2.2.6 Summary of MAF's analysis

2.3 The “agricultural freshwater lake and farmland created by the project … should provide good food
and habitat”

2.3.1 Reclamation Areas versus Estuaries

2.3.2 Waterbird Usage: and the implications for Waterbird Conservation

3. MAF's Vision for the Site: “marshes, migratory bird habitats, nature preserves, ecology parks, and so on”, and
the Present Status of Wetland Management and Design in South Korea.

3.1 The Reclamation Process

3.2 Creation of Artificial habitats for waterbirds, including shorebirds

3.3 Minsmere RSPB Reserve: scrape creation and management issues

4. Summary



Executive Summary

  1. This report, describing the international importance of the Saemangeum estuarine system to waterbirds, analyses and responds to the rationale for continuing its reclamation provided by the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (hereafter referred to as MAF) on their website at:
  2. Saemangeum is the name of a single reclamation project on the west coast of South Korea which entails the damming of two free-flowing rivers, ca 30 000 ha of tidal-flats, and 10 000 ha of estuarine shallows, by the construction of a 33 km long seawall. The Saemangeum project was first devised in the early 1970s; launched in 1991; and suspended by a court ruling in July 2003. Presently, MAF, as part of their efforts to get the reclamation project legally re-started, are claiming that water pollution can be controlled and that there will be no negative impacts on waterbirds.
  3. The Saemangeum (Dongjin and Mangyeung) estuarine system presently supports at least 27 species of waterbird (from the Ciconiiformes, Anseriformes, Charidriiformes, and Lariiformes), in internationally important concentrations (according to Ramsar Convention criteria). 18 of these are shorebird species (from Charadriidae and Scolopacidae), and an estimated minimum of 300 000 - 400 000 shorebirds are supported by the system regularly. At least three other globally threatened estuarine-dependent waterbird species are also regularly supported by the system in internationally important concentrations.
  4. The report has been written at this time to assist understanding of the issues affecting waterbirds likely introduced to court hearings held on the Saemangeum reclamation project by MAF (on August 25th and subsequently), and on the understanding that the same ministry is presently also considering designs and proposals for creating bird reserves and eco-parks on the reclaimed land as part of its attempts to persuade the project's opponents that the reclamation will be “environmentally friendly”.
  5. In addition, MAF claim on their website that coastal reclamation lakes “ranked 1st through 7th” nationwide in terms of importance to waterbirds; that shorebirds presently supported by the Saemangeum estuarine system will move “easily” to adjacent or other intertidal areas; and that the reclamation project will also provide good waterbird habitat. This report presents evidence to counter each claim in turn,(i) via analysis of the survey data on which MAF base their assertion about the importance of reclamation lakes over natural estuarine systems; (ii) through specifying the real (ie existing) ecological requirements of waterbirds (most especially shorebirds) that depend on the Saemangeum estuarine system; and (iii) by demonstrating that the present comparative abundance of many shorebird species within the Saemangeum system demonstrates that the system currently provides the feeding and roosting requirements of such species.
  6. While accepting that reclamation lakes do provide important habitat for several waterbird species in South Korea, the report demonstrates, with examples, that no scientific support exists for the MAF notion that shorebirds displaced from Saemangeum will be accommodated elsewhere without loss. Examples of declines in shorebirds numbers after displacement through reclamation are provided from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; and through loss of feeding opportunity, from Delaware Bay in the United States.
  7. Further evidence to support the argument that the loss of the Saemangeum estuarine system will cause long-term declines in the populations of several shorebird and threatened estuarine species is presented by reference to the status of many of the affected species within the East Asia-Pacific Waterbird Migration Flyway.
  8. The report indicates that if the reclamation project is to continue, then much greater research needs to be conducted to both understand and then mitigate its impacts. It identifies the requirement for MAF to provide clear data to uphold their claims that shorebirds displaced from the Saemangeum system can be supported long-term by adjacent tidal-flat areas.
  9. The character of the area post-reclamation is previewed, with the emphasis on MAF's proposals for bird and nature reserves. An example of an intensively managed wetland (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Minsmere reserve in the United Kingdom) is introduced, and likely issues of managing non-natural waterbird habitat are discussed.
  10. The report concludes in its summary that MAF, as the main proponent of this reclamation of an internationally important wetland within the territory of a contracting party to the Ramsar Convention has obligations to demonstrate absolutely that populations of estuarine-dependent species that will be affected by the reclamation project will not decline as a result.

Please note: while containing input and advice from leading wetland and shorebird experts (including Dr. David Wells, Dr. Clive Minton, Dr. Chris Elphick and Dr. Phil Battley), we are still at this stage actively seeking further input from researchers and scientists to improve this online account, and are aiming to translate the information into Korean for wider use. We will also mail the information gathered here to MAF and media.


1. Introduction

The following note contains analysis and a response to the rationale for continuing the Saemangeum reclamation provided by the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) on their website at: Direct quotations from MAF's website are reproduced throughout in blue. The first section of this note focuses especially on the sections directly relevant to bird conservation (most especially the part entitled, “If the reclamation project is run, will migratory birds be able to come?”). It strongly refutes MAF's assertion that the reclamation of one of Asia's most important estuarine systems will “invite(s) more migratory birds to the area”. The second, shorter section aims to introduce several related key considerations in the design of bird reserves on the reclaimed land as proposed. These include a brief introduction to a wetland reserve (Minsmere in the UK)that is well-known to many Korean specialists as being able to support migrant waterbirds through intensive management and the creation of artificial “scrapes”.

It has been written at this time to assist understanding of the issues likely being introduced to the court process by MAF (on August 25th and subsequently), and on the understanding that the same ministry is presently considering designs and proposals for creating bird reserves and eco-parks on the reclaimed land - largely in an effort to assuage international and growing national concerns over the direct threat to regional biodiversity caused by the reclamation. Their intentions have been made increasingly apparent by, for example, the government's announcement that it was now considering seriously the development of an Eco-park and artificial wetlands, as part of a possible compromise (Korean media: July 22nd).

The Saemangeum reclamation issue has been ongoing for a number of years, and there is a growing body of information on the issue both within Korea, in cyberspace, and increasingly in published sources. For the sake of brevity and clarity, this note assumes reasonable familiarity with the Saemangeum issue (see e.g. our Birds Korea - Saemangeum Reference Page) and Korean wetland conservation in general (see e.g. Birds Korea - wetlands).

In summary, therefore:

  1. Saemangeum is the name of a single reclamation project which entails the damming of two free-flowing rivers, ca 30 000 ha of tidal-flats, and 10 000 ha of estuarine shallows by the construction of a 33 km long seawall;
  2. The stated purpose on which the permit for the project was granted was the creation of agricultural land (mostly for rice cultivation), in accordance with the Public Waters Reclamation Act;
  3. The project is thus “driven” primarily by MAF;
  4. The project as proposed would create one or more huge freshwater reclamation lakes (covering 11 800 ha); and areas that are now tidal-flats are slated to be reclaimed over an approximate 5-10 year period, and converted into rice-field and industrial estates;
  5. The 33 km long sea-wall is between 80-90% complete;
  6. A court in Seoul (on July 15th, 2003) ruled against the project, and demanded the suspension of the construction work. There are strict water quality guidelines in place in South Korea, and as pollution levels are already increasing in the rivers upstream of the reclamation project, it is considered that the water in the reclamation lake will be too polluted to use for agriculture. Without the water from the lake, the vast area of rice-fields cannot be developed as proposed.
  7. A site sharing a similar design, the 17 000 ha Shihwa area, was reclaimed in 1994. However, due primarily to pollution levels in the reclamation lake and the decline in the domestic rice market, the government abandoned any plans for agriculture at Shihwa in 1998.
  8. The Saemangeum (Dongjin and Mangyeung) estuarine system as it is now supports at least 27 species of waterbird in internationally important concentrations according to Ramsar Convention criteria (Birds Korea - Impacts on Waterbird numbers). These concentrations can be understood as the number of individuals whose loss would have the potential to destabilize the East Asia-Pacific Flyway population of that species.
  9. 18 of these are shorebird species (from Charadriidae and Scolopacidae), and an estimated minimum of 300 000 - 400 000 shorebirds are supported by the system regularly. At least three other globally threatened estuarine-dependent waterbird species are also regularly supported by the system in internationally important concentrations;
  10. Although South Korea is a signatory to both the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, its government has not yet communicated the anticipated impacts of the reclamation to other Contracting Parties that share species dependent upon the Saemangeum system; nor has it considered (in proper detail) ways to reduce the impacts of the reclamation on global biodiversity. The Saemangeum estuarine system is not yet a Ramsar site.
  11. Data, both government and independent, show the Saemangeum system to be the single most important natural wetland for waterbirds in South Korea, and the most important known shorebird site in the Yellow Sea (see e.g. Barter, 2002).
  12. South Korea has very great importance for migrant shorebirds, the globally-threatened, nesting Black-faced Spoonbill Platelea minor and Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes; for wintering Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi; and ducks and geese. As would be expected, the shorebirds are largely confined to estuarine habitats (along with Black-faced Spoonbill, Chinese Egret and Saunders's Gull), whilst the ducks and geese are numerically more dependent on rice-fields and reclamation lakes.
  13. The Saemangeum system is one of approximately 65 wetlands remaining in South Korea that meet Ramsar criteria for identification as internationally important for waterbirds (Moores, 1999 b). Only one of these sites (Upo) has been listed under the Convention; and the vast majority of the most important sites (e.g. Yeongjong, Asan Bay, Namyang Bay, Song Do) are either being partly or wholly reclaimed; being reclaimed piecemeal (the Nakdong Estuary, Suncheon Bay); or have been created through conversion of intertidal systems to rice-field, and are showing gradual reductions in biodiversity due to agricultural intensification, and presumably a gradual reduction in invertebrate populations (e.g. Geumho Lake, Yeongam Lake, Seosan). Even the one Ramsar site internationally important for waterbirds, Upo, is suffering significant changes in its ecological character, and is an increasingly strong candidate for listing on the Ramsar Convention's Montereux Record of declared sites now at risk(see: Birds Korea/Upo02 and Birds Korea/Upo Wetland Floods) .
  14. The Saemangeum project was first devised in the early 1970s; planned in more detail in the 1980s; launched in 1991; suspended for 1-year in 2000-2001; and restarted only to be suspended again by the court's ruling in 2003. Presently, proponents of the project are working to convince others that water pollution can be controlled and that there will be no negative impacts on waterbirds. MAF are for example preparing proposals for artificial " marshes, migratory bird habitats, nature preserves, ecology parks, and so on.”
  15. In South Korea at present, there are no bird reserves or wetlands being actively managed to maintain waterbird populations, beyond a few (hundred) hectares of rice-field being kept wet in winter for ducks and geese. Nor are there any wetlands with wildlife or waterbird management plans or management staff; and there are no domestic organizations in formal partnership with recognized wetland or bird conservation organizations or specialists (though several Korean NGOs have less formal links with e.g. the Japanese Wild Goose Protection Association and with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust).

2. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's Argument

MAF present several arguments on their website for continuing the reclamation, which have already been challenged both by the Korean court and also by expert review, and therefore are not addressed in detail here. These include its desire to replace farmland being lost by industrialization (without accepting the underlying causes of such loss, which include a shift from a largely rural economy to an industrial society in the period since the Seamangeum project was first proposed in the 1970s); and their assertion that water pollution will be controlled (without providing the evidence to support such an assertion).

With the recent increase in awareness of the international importance of the site, both to fisheries and to migratory bird populations, allied to South Korea's accession to both the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity in the late 1990s, MAF has also recently tried to portray the reclamation as “environmentally friendly”.

On their website MAF state:

Some argue the Saemangeum Project destroys the environment, but we should consider the reclamation project as an environment conversion, one to change tidal flats to farmland….

Just like tidal flats, farmland is a habitat for numerous living things and possesses various public-good functions to foster water resources, to prevent floods, to purify the air, and to provide pleasant scenery…

Selecting rice fields rather than tidal flats does not destroy the environment…

Korea needs reclamations considering its high population density, abundant ecosystems (i.e.: its mountainous area is 65%) and small farmlands…

Sustainable development does not mean that we should leave everything the way it is, but that we should develop natural resources left to our generation so that they can enjoy the resources as much as we are enjoying them.”

MAF further develops its arguments on bird conservation in the following section:

“If the reclamation project is run, will migratory birds be able to come?.

The reclamation project invites more migratory birds to the area.

According to the Ministry of Environment, Avian Census, agricultural freshwater lakes ranked 1st through 7th based on the number of birds amid 69 domestic migratory birds' visiting places.

The number of total observed birds in 69 places amounted to 1.068mln and 60.6% of them (648,000 birds) appeared inhabiting reclaimed land.

Furthermore, snipes and plovers (shorebirds) easily move their habitat to the Gomso Bay, Geum River estuary or other tidal flat (239,000ha) which are 5 ~ 20km away from Saemangeum.

- when the Saemangeum Project is completed ornithologists also expect many migratory birds to inhabit the Saemangeum region thanks to the well-suited agricultural freshwater lake and farmland created by the project, which should provide good food and habitat.”

MAF's Three Main Arguments can be summarized thus:.

  1. “Agricultural freshwater lakes ranked 1st through 7th based on the number of birds”.
  2. "Furthermore, snipes and plovers” (shorebirds), will “easily move their habitat to the Gomso Bay, Geum River estuary or other tidal flat". (NB: The national area of tidal-flat remaining nationwide after the reclamation of the Saemangeum system is estimated by MAF to be approximately 240,000ha).
  3. The "agricultural freshwater lake and farmland created by the project … should provide good food and habitat".


2.1 “Agricultural freshwater lakes ranked 1st through 7th based on the number of birds”

MAF base their assertion that “The reclamation project invites more migratory birds to the area” and that reclamation areas are the most important waterbird habitat nationwide on data contained in the 1999 Ministry of Environment (MOE) Bird Census. Reference to the published source (Document No. 38000-67140-57-9956) reveals that the counts contained in it were collected on February 7th, 1999, through survey effort conducted in 69 discrete wetland sites (NB: most of the data was collected by relatively inexperienced counters, rather than Ministry of Environment researchers). MAF use the data to assert that the seven most important wetlands for waterbirds nationwide (all of which supported more than 20 000 waterbirds, but none of which have been proposed for designation by the South Korean government as Ramsar sites) were reclaimed areas, comprised of reclamation lakes and rice-fields.

Although one of the top seven sites surveyed (Asan Bay-Sapkyo) was actually a combination of estuary and reclamation site, six of the other main sites for waterbirds listed in this survey(s) are indeed reclaimed areas.

Mid-winter Counts and Counts during Migration.

The 1999 and subsequent MOE surveys concur that reclaimed coastal areas in mid-winter in South Korea support very large concentrations of wintering Anatidae. In 1999 the three species recorded in the largest concentrations nationwide during the MOE mid-winter survey were Mallard Anas platyrhynchos (340 581), Baikal Teal Anas formosa (230 508) and Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha (103 108) - representing over 65% of the total of 1 068 256 individual birds recorded.

These three duck species of the Anas genus also constitute the vast majority of all individual birds recorded in reclaimed areas.

The reclamation lakes (typically used by roosting dabbling or Anas ducks), and surrounding rice-fields (especially when extensive, with limited infrastructure) provide suitable conditions in winter for a rather limited range of species that depend on spilt grain and rice stubble for feeding. In the most extensive areas (such as in Seosan), they also sometimes support small numbers of other floodplain dependent species, including threatened species such as Oriental White Stork Ciconia boyciana and White-naped Crane Grus vipio. Series of counts have revealed that several such highly specialised and easily disturbed species tend to decline as agricultural intensification increases, as in the Haenam area, where in the 1999 MOE survey three out of the top seven sites for wintering waterbirds were located.

Examination of the data presented in the 1999 MOE survey source document cited by MAF reveal that 19 species of shorebird (“wader”) were also recorded nationwide during the same period, totaling 15 205 individuals. The four most numerous species recorded were Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus (ostralegus) osculans (3 984), Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola (2 356), Dunlin Calidris alpina (6 091) and Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata orientalis (1 589). The inclusion of records of e.g. 50 Terek Sandpiper Xenus/Tringa cinereus (a species previously and subsequently unrecorded in South Korea in mid-winter) suggest that shorebird counts made at this time were not entirely accurate, while the very low counts of Dunlin suggest also that they were not complete.

Considering the survey effort expended in reclamation areas, the very small number of freshwater associate shorebird species recorded (including only 118 Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus nationwide) also strongly suggests that a lack of invertebrates (potential prey items) or optimal roosting conditions for such shorebirds are typical of existing reclaimed areas.

In contrast, an independent published survey of 14 coastal wetlands in South Korea in January and early February 1999 found 31,088 shorebirds of seven species, including over 20,000 Dunlin. The Saemangeum estuarine system at this time supported at least 7 437 individual shorebirds - approximately 30% of the national total (Moores, 1999 a).

Due to low mid-winter temperatures and migratory strategies, the vast majority of species and individuals of shorebirds (along with the breeding populations of other threatened waterbird species such as Black-faced Spoonbill and Chinese Egret) are, however, not present in South Korea in February, as they migrate through the Yellow Sea primarily between mid-April and late May and again between August and October, spending the boreal winter largely in South-east Asia and Oceania.

According to Barter (2002), the Yellow Sea as a whole supports “30% or more of the E Asia/Pacific Flyway breeding populations of 18 species; for six of the species the region supports almost their whole flyway population.” Basing the South Korea part of his research primarily on data published under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment, Barter shows that the combined estuaries of the Mangyeung and Dongjin Rivers support the largest known concentrations of shorebirds in the whole Yellow Sea, with estimates (based on peak counts) of over 241 000 shorebirds supported on northward migration, and over 89 000 on southward migration (Barter 2002, p.70). These peak counts do not take into account the asynchronous or "staggered" migration strategies within the species involved, which result in a turnover rate of individuals at migration sites that when factored in give significantly higher total counts. The spring total, incidentally, exceeds the mid-winter count of any one site recorded in the MOE's mid-winter survey in 1999.

In total, the Saemangeum estuarine system supports at least 27 species of waterbird in internationally important concentrations - and 18 of these species are shorebirds. Moreover, at least seven of the species found in internationally important concentrations are considered globally threatened (e.g. in the Asian Red Data Book for Threatened Birds, maintained by Birdlife International, at:

Independent data collected in a series of survey circuits in 1998 and 1999 (with three surveys conducted in spring; two in autumn and one in mid-winter at each site) reveal the relative importance of estuarine systems in comparison to reclamation lakes and rice-fields in South Korea. In terms of species found in internationally important concentrations, the 13 most important sites were all estuarine systems, and only three out of the most important 25 sites were reclamation areas. In addition, Saemangeum was the second most important site nationwide in terms of number of individuals of waterbird (based on adding up the maximum count of each waterbird species during the six counts); and only three out of the 13 most important sites were reclamation areas - 10 were estuarine systems (Moores, 1999, b).

It is clear that MAF (the Ministry which used to be responsible for coordinating bird surveys until the late-1990s) is misrepresenting the relative value of the Saemangeum estuarine system and reclamation areas on their website, by:

  1. Focusing on bird count data collected during a single survey in mid-winter when most shorebird species are absent from Korea;
  2. Not including existing and published data collected during shorebird migration periods;
  3. Presenting the data in terms of total number of all birds (including non-waterbirds), without any reference or evaluation of species' global status or therefore of each site's relative importance to maintaining global biodiversity.

2.2 “Furthermore, snipes and plovers (shorebirds) easily move their habitat to the Gomso Bay, Geum River
estuary or other tidal flat (239,000ha)”

In both government and independent shorebird survey work conducted up to present in South Korea, Saemangeum has consistently been proven to be the single most important site for shorebirds, supporting an estimated minimum of 300 000 to 400 000 individuals annually. These include internationally important concentrations of two of the world's most endangered shorebirds - the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus and Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer. The presence of such large concentrations is clear evidence that the Saemangeum system is preferred by these individuals (and species) to other areas available to them.

Estimating the potential ability of adjacent or remote systems to support displaced shorebirds has proven to be extremely difficult, and there are perhaps no published studies worldwide that have been able to prove that (long-term) shorebird populations are able to simply shift to new areas following the reclamation of preferred areas.

On the contrary, much evidence exists to suggest that shorebird populations are highly vulnerable to man-made changes in the systems upon which they depend (e.g. Piersma and Baker, 2000).

In Western Europe especially, shorebirds are amongst the most researched groups of bird species. Research, based on long-term monitoring and reasonably comprehensive studies on the ecology of shorebirds' estuarine staging and wintering areas, has consistently identified highly complex relationships between shorebirds' prey items (largely typified as “macrozoobenthos living in intertidal mud and sandflats”, Zwarts, 1996); such items' availability or harvestability; and shorebird feeding, and roosting and migration strategies.

There are several well-documented cases of shorebird declines being linked to loss of both estuarine habitat(which led to loss in area and quality of optimal or preferred feeding areas) and declines solely in preferred prey items, especially in key staging and non-breeding areas. Shorebird communities divide up food resources, and are programmed in such a way that limits the prey items that they can take, not just taxonomically (to prey species) but also to prey size (e.g. Zwarts, 1996). It also limits the habitat types, substrates, and the quality of such habitats, that given shorebird species will focus their feeding efforts on. Without enough of this particular habitat available and within economical distance of safe roost sites, a location cannot support the species in question in the numbers that the stability of the flyway population requires.

Three case studies illustrate the following points:

  1. The level of research required to assess the complex impacts of reclamation or habitat degradation on waterbirds (most especially shorebirds).
  2. That various mechanisms come into effect when intertidal areas are reclaimed. Some species (especially Anatids that prefer extensive areas of open water) are likely to increase when intertidal areas are impounded, while many other estuarine waterbirds show clear declines in the directly affected areas. When many of the shorebirds are displaced, some move to adjacent areas while others disperse more widely. Such dispersal from optimal to sub-optimal habitats often leads long-term to increased mortality. This comes about through increased competition for existing harvestable food resources, leading to the “expulsion” of juveniles and weaker birds from favored areas; the increased dependence on sub-optimal habitats and increased energy expenditure in relation to increased foraging effort and movement; and the reduced weight and health of those that remain due to direct competition when foraging in favored areas.
  3. In the case of long-distance shorebirds, reduced weight and health has been demonstrated to lead to significant declines in overall populations of the affected species due to their reduced ability to migrate and breed.

2.2.1 Case Study 1: The Oosterschelde/Krammer-Volkerak, the Netherlands
(abstract reproduced from Schekkerman, Meininger & Meire. [1994])

Between 1982 and 1987, the construction of a storm-surge barrier and two secondary dams in the eastern and northern parts of the Oosterschelde/Krammer-Volkerak area resulted in the loss of 33% of the 170 km2 of intertidal area in the estuary. Consequences for non-breeding waterbirds were evaluated on the basis of monthly high-tide counts during five seasons before and three seasons after the construction period.

In the entire Oosterschelde/Krammer-Volkerak area, numbers of wintering waders decreased but those of ducks increased. Peak numbers and total bird-days changed little, but the seasonal pattern shifted from a midwinter maximum to a peak in autumn.

In the Oosterschelde (excluding the Krammer-Volkerak), where 17% of tidal flats disappeared, species feeding mainly on open water remained stable or increased. Species dependent on intertidal areas for foraging (mainly Charadriiformes and dabbling ducks) generally decreased. Total density of intertidal foragers decreased slightly. In most intertidal species, the Oosterschelde wintering population showed a stronger decrease, or a smaller change in numbers, than was shown during the same period by numbers in Britain and Ireland which were taken as an index of the total W-European winter populations. Changes varied considerably between species, and were correlated with their distribution within the estuary. Species concentrated in the eastern sector, where most habitat loss occurred, declined more than species with a more westerly distribution.

Results indicate that intertidal foragers forced to move from the enclosed parts of the estuary were not generally able to settle into the remaining intertidal areas. Both dispersal to adjacent areas (mainly by dabbling ducks) and mortality during severe winter weather (in some shorebird species) may have contributed to the declines (italics added)….

Numbers of shorebirds moulting in the Oosterschelde in late summer declined strongly compared to numbers in other seasons. Increased disturbance due to recreational activities may have played a role during this time of the year.

2.2.2 Case Study 2: Cardiff Bay, the United Kingdom (based on Burton et al. [2001a 2001 b])

Cardiff Bay was an area of intertidal habitat located on the northern shore of the Severn Estuary. On November 4th, 1999, the Cardiff Bay barrage was closed, leading to the conversion of the inter-tidal area to an impounded area, or reclamation lake. The impacts of the conversion e.g. on waterbirds have been closely monitored, in part because such impoundments are extremely rare in the United Kingdom.

Waterbirds were intensively monitored in Cardiff Bay and adjacent areas (including Orchard Ledges, the Rhymney Estuary and the intertidal areas near Cardiff heliport) for 10 years prior to barrage closure, and subsequently using the same methodology, allowing direct comparisons between data sets to be made. None of the species recorded either prior to or after barrage closure were supported by Cardiff Bay in either nationally or internationally important concentrations, though several of the species are supported by the wider Severn Estuary system in internationally important concentrations. Four key estuarine-associate species, Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, Dunlin (all three of which are supported by the Saemangeum estuarine system in internationally important concentrations), and Common Redshank Tringa totanus, are the major species investigated through the reports.

Previous studies suggesting the very high site fidelity of Common Redshank especially formed the basis for intensive monitoring of the impoundment's impact on that species, through both counting and also through a colour-banding program (allowing identification of individual birds).

In the winter of 1998-1999, before impoundment, the national Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) recorded over 5 500 waterbirds in Cardiff Bay (the majority being Dunlin Calidris alpina): 352 of these were Common Redshank. In the two following years the same survey effort recorded only 95 (1999-2000) and 372 (2000-2001) waterbirds in the impounded area, and no Common Redshank.

The research aimed to investigate whether birds “lost” to Cardiff Bay were able to use suboptimal habitats in adjacent areas.

Amongst conclusions (extracted from the executive summaries, and included with the caveat that “Until the full programme of work has been completed, these conclusions should be treated with caution”):

  1. The numbers of birds using Cardiff Bay in the two winters following barrage-closure have been greatly reduced. A few individuals of the four key species - Shelduck, Dunlin, Curlew and Redshank - have continued to use the Bay as a high tide roost site, but no Dunlin or Curlew were recorded at low tide. Only 16 species of wildfowl and wader, and an annual median of 15, have been recorded at the site since barrage-closure in comparison to an annual median of 23 and a total of 41 in the 10 years before.
  2. Although numbers of Shelduck and Curlew rose at the neighbouring Orchard Ledges site in the winter following barrage-closure and have since been maintained, neither increase matched the loss of birds from the Bay.
  3. Numbers of both Dunlin and Redshank had declined on the main study sites in the 10 years prior to barrage-closure.
  4. Numbers of Dunlin and Curlew in the winter of 2000/01 at low tide at two other nearby sites were lower than in any previous winter, whilst those of Shelduck and Redshank were unchanged.
  5. Following closure, Dunlin numbers fell further at the neighbouring Rhymney Estuary. Redshank numbers rose there in both years following the closure: however information from colour-ringing confirmed that the observed increase at Rhymney was largely due to an influx of birds displaced from Cardiff Bay and almost matched the loss of birds from there.
  6. Moreover analysis of biometric data indicated that, in the winter of 1999/2000 post-closure, adult Redshank from Cardiff Bay were significantly lighter than those from Rhymney and those that had been recorded at both sites prior to barrage-closure. Preliminary survival analysis indicated that the mortality rate of adult Redshank in the winter of 1999/2000, immediately post-closure, was greater than in each of the two previous winters.
  7. In both years, the majority of birds were seen on the Rhymney Estuary and on the area of mudflats by Cardiff Heliport. Radio-tracking had shown that the latter area was formerly used only at night, probably due to disturbance.

2.2.3 Case Study 3: Red Knot Calidris canutus declines at the population level due to changes
in human use of the Delaware Bay, United States (C. Minton, in lit.)

Red Knot have traditionally gorged themselves on the bountiful supply of spilled Horse Shoe Crab eggs available to them in Delaware Bay in May/early June. With the advent of large-scale harvesting of the Horse Shoe Crabs (for bait) in 1990 there has been a massive decline such that there are now only 10% of the former level of eggs buried in the sand and an even smaller proportion spilled and available for the waders. The Red Knot is the most dependent of all the waders on this food supply. Numbers declined from an estimated 140 000 in the mid 1980s to a reliable 100 000 in 1990, 70 000 in 1997, 30 000 in 2002 and less than 20 000 in 2003. Extensive studies have shown that the birds stopping at Delaware Bay are now not able to gain weight as fast as they could in the past. Hence growing proportions of the populations are now leaving for the Arctic later and at lower weights. Their chances of achieving that migration successfully are reduced. Their chances of arriving in sub-optimal conditions for immediate breeding are increased. Overall, the effects are to reduce breeding productivity. Not only has reproductive success been impaired but there has also been a massive increase in mortality rates of adults. The count figures are based both on weekly counts at Delaware Bay, which go back 15 years, and counts of birds on their wintering areas in Argentina and Southern Chile. Figures for both these locations tally well” (Dr. C. Minton in lit.).

2.2.4 Optimal versus Suboptimal conditions for shorebirds

Shorebirds' abundance and distribution within a given region is largely dependent upon prey availability (itself largely determined by water quality, substrate type, and predation by other species, including people); the location of secure, undisturbed roosting areas at high-tide near to optimal feeding areas; and to a lesser extent the condition of adjacent habitat types - so that not all tidal-flats and estuaries offer similar conditions, and suitable habitat is very “patchy” (Piersma and Baker, 2000). Many species tend therefore to rely on the same sites each year, using the same sites predictably each year during staging and the non-breeding season. One study revealed, for example, that 80% of 8 779 recaptures of Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis in their non-breeding area were within 12km of their original banding site, despite such areas being 13 000 km removed from their nesting sites (Lawler, 1995).

In the case of the Saemangeum estuarine system, analysis of count data shows that its main value to shorebirds is as a preferred migratory stopover location. At such stopover locations, typically “many shorebird species need to gain weight at the rate of 3-5% every day during a two week stopover in order to achieve the 60-100% weight gain necessary for the next stage of their migratory journey. Food resources have to be of the highest quality. These fat reserves are the fuel for the subsequent migratory flight. Shorebirds leaving the Saemangeum estuarine system on northward migration have to be able to get to the breeding grounds in northern Siberia, and in the case of Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica, all the way across the ocean to Alaska. Thus the birds have to have the ability to make 3 to 5 day non-stop flights. There are no known coastal areas north of Korea in April/May which are ice free or suitable as intermediate migratory stopover locations.

This last stage of the migratory journey is the most critical of all for shorebirds. They have to time their arrival on the breeding grounds to take optimal advantage of the short window of opportunity for breeding in June/July. Specifically, they need to lay eggs in time for their chicks to hatch at the peak of the insect season (usually first week of July). Furthermore, they need to arrive on the breeding grounds in good condition, with some fat reserves still remaining, to tide them through periods of food shortage in early parts of the season. Even more so the female has to be able to create eggs, within a week of arriving, which may be equivalent to 50-75% of her bodyweight. “So just any stopover location will not do. It's got to be an optimal feeding area for the birds to meet their needs” (Dr. Clive Minton, in lit.).

Clearly, based on the regular and preferred use of the Saemangeum estuarine system by the Yellow Sea's largest concentrations of shorebirds, the area at present provides the best conditions.
Shorebirds do not use other areas, adjacent or otherwise, in such large concentrations, because the conditions at other sites are not as good for them as within the Saemangeum estuarine system itself. No other explanation has been found for their observed behaviour in respect of sites.

2.2.5 Comparison of the Saemangeum estuarine system with Geum estuary and Gomso Bay

The productivity of wetlands (which is dependent upon their ecological character and extent) forms the basis of their ability to support waterbirds. This basic concept underlies the criteria for identifying internationally important wetlands developed by the Ramsar Convention, in which birds are recognized explicitly as sensitive indicators of wetland productivity and character. The most productive wetlands, it is widely considered, tend to support the largest concentrations of feeding waterbirds.

The Saemangeum estuarine system, with its extensive salt-marshes, mud-flats, sand-flats and mud-sand mix flats, is considered a highly diverse and productive system. As it regularly supports the largest known feeding (and roosting) concentrations of shorebirds in the Yellow Sea it can be considered that the system offers the best conditions for such species staging requirements. As the concentrations and the diversity of species are also both greater here than in either the Geum to the north, or Gomso Bay to the south (or indeed at any other site nationwide), it can be easily understood that the Saemangeum estuarine system must be better at meeting these species' actual ecological requirements.

In comparison, based on the numbers of shorebirds presently supported by these sites, both Gomso Bay and the outer Geum estuary offer comparatively poorer conditions. As potentially significant factors, both have largely sandy substrates only; both lack significant salt-marshes; and, since the closure of the estuary barrage across the Geum, both lack significant brackish zones.

The absence of significant numbers of shorebirds in Gomso Bay (despite surveys undertaken to find them there) clearly indicates the lack of suitable conditions for those shorebird species presently supported by the Saemangeum estuarine system. If suitable conditions do not exist at Gomso Bay now, they will not exist once the Saemangeum barrage is closed (unless very extensive modifications to the area are made).

Although the Geum estuary already supports internationally important concentrations of several species of shorebirds, numbers and diversity are consistently lower than that found within the Saemangeum system and do not include internationally important concentrations of key species such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Spotted Greenshank. The 300 000 or 400 000 shorebirds displaced by the loss of ca 30 000 ha of tidal-flats in the Saemangeum system would not be able to be sustained long-term by the ca 10 000 ha of tidal-flat presently remaining at the mouth of the Geum estuary, as this area already supports significant concentrations of birds (in addition, it too has also been slated for complete reclamation). Although some individuals could be supported by the Geum tidal-flats, long-term declines in populations would most likely occur due to the loss of preferred feeding and roosting areas, and through the recognized mechanism of increased “interference” and competition between individuals, which both increases mortality rates and depresses breeding success (Goss-Custard and Durrell, 1990).

Although South Korea still has extensive areas of intertidal flats along its west and to a lesser extent its south coast, these are typically less complex systems than found within the Saemangeum estuarine system, and none support as high numbers of shorebirds. Moreover, many remaining internationally important shorebird sites are also threatened with either complete or partial reclamation (Moores, 1999 a).

2.2.6 Summary of MAF's analysis

Existing and compelling evidence therefore strongly contradicts MAF's vastly over-simplified assertion that, “snipes and plovers (shorebirds) easily move their habitat to the Gomso Bay, Geum River estuary or other tidal flat”. Considering that MAF are the main proponents of the reclamation of an internationally important wetland in the territory of a contracting party to the Ramsar Convention, they have a significant degree of responsibility to prove their claim that shorebirds can indeed "move their habitat” in the simplistic way suggested.

Further evidence to support the argument that the loss of the Saemangeum estuarine system will cause long-term declines in the populations of several shorebird and threatened estuarine species includes:

  1. Large populations of shorebirds that used to be supported by the Nakdong estuary prior to barrage closure and piecemeal reclamations in the mid-1980s have not been proven to relocate elsewhere. For example a peak count of Red-necked Stint recorded at the Nakdong estuary in 1984 (Piersma, 1985) far exceeded the total number of Red-necked Stints recorded at more than 20 sites nationwide, including the Nakdong estuary, in 1998 (Moores, 1999).
  2. In Flyways with the highest level of habitat loss, waterbirds (including shorebirds) tend to show the greatest declines in overall numbers. The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is considered both to have suffered the greatest extent of habitat loss, and to have the highest number of threatened species (Parish, 1994). Total numbers of shorebirds in this flyway are significantly lower than in similar flyways running through Africa-Europe and through the Americas.
  3. Such species include the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which has shown declines at a number of different staging sites along the Flyway, despite no obvious changes in the habitat of breeding areas.
  4. In neighboring Japan, where shorebird count data have been collected regularly since the mid-1970s, numbers of many shorebird species have shown long-term declines, considered consistent with loss of feeding areas through reclamation (e.g. Hanawa, 1985).

2.3 The “agricultural freshwater lake and farmland created by the project … should provide
good food and habitat”

2.3.1 Reclamation Areas versus Estuaries

As suggested by Elphick (Elphick & Oring 1998, Elphick & Oring, 2002, Elphick 2003 in press) rice fields are increasingly seen to provide important wildlife habitat in many parts of the world, including southern Europe, Japan, and North America.

The same author cautions: “As a group waterbirds generally, and shorebirds specifically, use a wide range of wetland habitats. Some species are very flexible in their choice of habitat, others much less so. Consequently, any comparison of the potential value of different habitat types must take into account the particular waterbird species involved. For example, a number of recent studies have shown that many waterbirds use flooded rice field habitats. In some cases very large numbers of individuals, and a wide diversity of species are involved. In addition, in one California study it was found that birds feeding in rice fields apparently fared just as well as birds in natural wetlands. These results are encouraging because they mean that areas with extensive rice fields have the potential to provide important habitat for waterbirds.

These results must be viewed with caution, however, and particular care must be taken not to extrapolate beyond what the data show. The California study only studied a small group of species that regularly use both flooded rice fields and natural wetlands. Many other waterbird species that are found in the region do not occur in both habitats and, therefore, could not be compared. For example, many of the shorebirds that occur in northern California are restricted to coastal estuarine habitats, and are very rarely found in rice fields. These species clearly require estuarine habitats, and there is no evidence at all that they benefit from any form of rice field management. For the species that do occur in rice fields, current information is limited to birds that use flooded fields during the winter in California.

We do not know if similar results would be obtained during the summer or during migratory periods. We also do not know whether similar results would be found in areas where rice is farmed in different ways (e.g., with different amounts of pesticide, with different flooding patterns, etc.). Finally, we do know that there are some species that rarely occur in rice fields, and that apparently need more natural settings.

Consequently, it is reasonable to believe that rice fields have great potential to benefit waterbirds if they are managed wisely. But they are in no way a good replacement for existing wetlands. If an area has already been converted to rice, then the studies from California and elsewhere suggest a number of ways in which field management can be modified so as to benefit waterbirds without hampering economic activity (in fact in some cases techniques that benefit waterbirds appear also to have economic benefits to farmers). But, none of the existing studies suggest that rice fields can support the full complement of species that are found in natural wetlands, and it is reasonable to assume that the conversion of an area of wetland to rice fields will result in local extinctions.” (Elphick, in lit.)

In South Korea, reclaimed areas comprising rice-fields and reclamation lakes (covering ca 960 000 ha in 1998) act as alternative or sub-optimal wetlands for a large number of bird species throughout the year, including several species of global conservation concern. However, as shown by many authors including Burton et al (2001a, 2001 b), natural intertidal areas can support a higher diversity of waterbirds and a higher number of individuals than reclamation lakes. In far eastern Asia, estuaries also support a significant percentage of threatened waterbird species.

Of the 40 species of global conservation concern listed by Birdlife International for South Korea (see:, 30 occur annually, and 24 of these are associated with wetlands. Three of these (Baikal Teal, Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser eythropus, and Oriental Stork) are primarily recorded in South Korea in reclaimed coastal areas, although only one (Baikal Teal) is found in internationally important concentrations.

Of the 30 annually occurring species of global conservation concern in South Korea, nine (Swan Goose Anser cygnoides , Chinese Egret, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Relict Gull Larus relictus, Saunders's Gull, Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus, Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis, Black-faced Spoonbill and Spotted Greenshank) are estuarine and tidal-flat dependent species. Seven of these occur annually in internationally important concentrations (Swan Goose, Chinese Egret, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Saunders's Gull, Far Eastern Curlew, Black-faced Spoonbill and Spotted Greenshank), with at least three of these being recorded in larger single-site concentrations in South Korea than anywhere else globally (Chinese Egret, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Spotted Greenshank). Of the seven, only Swan Goose is not found at Saemangeum in internationally important concentrations. Moreover, three other globally threatened species (Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis, Hooded Crane Grus monacha and White-naped Crane Grus vipio) that are found in the largest concentrations either inland in the Cheorwon floodplain, or at Gumi (roosting in the Nakdong River) are also found wintering in smaller numbers in both reclaimed coastal areas and estuaries - typically utilising both rice-fields and estuary tidal-flats (e.g. at Ganghwa, in the Han-Imjin estuary, and in Suncheon Bay), or the tidal-flats alone (in the Saemangeum area, and Yeongjong).

Examination of existing records of several of the threatened waterbird species presently supported by the Saemangeum estuarine system reveals that these species are not known to have ever been recorded in internationally important concentrations in freshwater or rice-field habitats.

For example, both Spotted Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper are almost entirely confined to estuarine or intertidal areas in both their staging and non-breeding areas. According to a review of records contained in the "Asian Red Data Book of Threatened Birds" maintained by Birdlife International, no internationally important concentrations of either species have been recorded in freshwater or rice-field habitats, while all known significant concentrations in both staging and non-breeding areas have been recorded in estuarine or inter-tidal areas. Such species will therefore not be supported at all by the Saemangeum area post-reclamation.

It should be reiterated that many species of waterbird are specialist, rather than generalist, foragers, and this constrains many species to feeding in intertidal habitats. Tidal mudflats support a very different invertebrate fauna from that of freshwater lagoons or rice fields, and for some species freshwater ponds provide no harvestable food resources.

For instance, the Great Knot feeds predominantly on intertidal molluscs, particularly bivalves (Tulp and de Goeij, 1994). The Saemangeum estuarine system is the single most important northward migration site for Great Knot on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (Barter 2002), but the proposed habitat creation will provide no useable feeding habitats for this species.

2.3.2 Waterbird Usage: and the implications for Waterbird Conservation

Out of 65 sites nationwide that can be considered internationally important for waterbirds (in accordance with Ramsar criteria: Moores, 1999), ca 50 are located in the coastal zone, and 13 of these can be considered coastal reclamation areas.

Coastal reclamation areas, comprising reclamation lakes and rice-fields, support a range of bird species during the year, the majority of which are relatively abundant generalists (i.e. widespread species that also occupy a broad range of other habitat types). These include several egret Egretta and crow Corvus species.

Of the 13 sites, only two are internationally important for waterbirds in spring (Seosan Lakes and the Honwon Ri rice-fields near Namyang Bay, both for concentrations of Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa), and none are internationally important during autumn migration. All but Honwon Ri are internationally important in the winter period for Anatidae, most especially for dabbling ducks of the genus Anas.

As noted above, rice-fields support a broad range of generalist and widespread species during the spring-summer and autumn. Only one shorebird species (Black-tailed Godwit) is known to occur in internationally important concentrations in rice-fields in South Korea, and the (comparative) rarity of freshwater preferring shorebird species such as Greater Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis, Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus, and even Northern Lapwing, suggest that conditions in South Korea are not optimal when compared to natural floodplain wetland (or even to rice-fields) in e.g. neighbouring Japan or China. Major limiting factors for such species are likely to include lack of moisture in surface soils (reducing penetrability of the soil by bills); lack of invertebrates (such species' main prey items); and excessive disturbance.

The vast majority of waterbirds using coastal reclamation areas in South Korea use such areas in winter and are composed primarily of ducks of the genus Anas. They feed primarily on spilt grain amongst rice-stubble or (to a lesser extent) grasses, and merely roost on the reclamation lakes during the day before flying out widely to feed in rice-fields at night (or to a much lesser extent in adjacent estuaries and shallow sea areas).

The typically huge reclamation lakes themselves support relatively small numbers of feeding birds - usually in very much smaller concentrations than free-flowing rivers or estuaries. This is clearly indicated by the comparative distribution of two of the most numerically important genera that utilise the lakes: Anas and Aythya ducks.

Of over 823 000 ducks recorded nationwide in the MOE 1999 survey cited by MAF, 757 000 were of the genus Anas (Typical Dabbling Ducks), and only 27 586 were of the genus Aythya (Diving Ducks).

The Anas largely comprised three species all of which are known to feed primarily in rice-fields at night. All three species were found in their largest concentrations in reclaimed coastal areas.

In the case of Aythya, concentrations of over 500 were recorded at only nine sites. Two of these sites, the near-natural Han River (7 225) and the Nakdong Estuary (5 874) accounted for approximately half of all the Aythya recorded nationwide. Only two coastal reclamation areas had concentrations of over 500 individuals (Yeongam and Geumho Lakes), which combined supported only 3 133 Aythya. The lack of significant concentrations of Aythya ducks on reclamation lakes is a clear indication of their relatively low productivity and/or their unsuitability for the genus.

It is clear, then, that although several reclamation areas are important for waterbirds they tend to support large concentrations of only a few species: primarily dabbling ducks of the genus Anas. The absence of intertidal areas, with high densities of macrozoobenthos, means they are unable to support significant concentrations of most species of estuarine-dependent shorebirds. It seems probable that reclaimed areas are also of significantly less value than natural floodplain wetlands - which used to support nesting Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon and Oriental Stork into the twentieth century in South Korea - and they do not have the same international value to biodiversity as natural or near-natural estuarine systems of a similar area.

3. MAF's Vision for the Site:“marshes, migratory bird habitats, nature preserves, ecology parks,
and so on”
, and the Present Status of Wetland Management and Design in South Korea.

The stated primary purpose of the Saemangeum reclamation has always been to create land and water for agriculture. It is therefore not surprising that MAF has failed to provide more detailed concepts of the artificial wetlands that it is proposing as part of its mitigation and eco-tourism package for the area. Without such detail it is necessary to interpolate MAF's future vision for the site, and therefore the site's future potential for waterbirds if the sea dyke is completed as proposed. Such interpolation can best be based upon the vision presented in MAF's website, and on the present status of wetland conservation/management and design in South Korea.

3.1 The Reclamation Process

Reference to MAF's website provides several details on the process of reclamation, and the final layout for the site:

  1. First, the 33 km long sea wall will be completed, with a road running along the top of it;
  2. Then the Dongjin area will be reclaimed (as water quality problems are fewer than in the Mangyeong River estuary);
  3. A channel will be created to pipe water from the Geum River, to dilute the polluted water from the Mangyeung River;
  4. At first salinity levels will be maintained in the Mangyeong area, and a “990 ha natural ecology region” will be created;
  5. Later, as water pollution levels drop, the lake will then gradually convert to freshwater;
  6. "The lake will hold 535 million tons of water” and will cover 11 800 ha and the reclaimed land area will be 28,300ha (NB: this total of 40 100 ha is this same as the total area being reclaimed, suggesting that the 990 ha natural ecology region referred to above will either be lake or rice-field).
  7. "Among several industries, we will build the most environmental-friendly farmland to reduce the use of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, realize environmental-friendly agriculture, and foster an ecology park and nature study site for youth to experience nature.

    We will create artificial marshes and an undercurrent reservoir to make aquatic animals' habitats, purify water quality naturally; build migratory birds' habitats for more birds to visit the reclaimed land; and prepare ornithological observation facilities.

    In order to prevent any problems in the spawning and habitation of fish-- which lay eggs in the river such as eels, gray mullets, and sea basses-- the fish road will be established at two Saemangeum water supply floodgates. Many of the water supply pipes within the reclaimed land will be made out of soil, and the residential area for movers will be harmonized with nature”

Further examination of the MAF website reveals that their proposal also includes 600 ha of artificial marshes, primarily to act as sinks for pollutants before water is released from the reclamation lake into the sea.

3.2 Creation of Artificial habitats for waterbirds, including shorebirds

Of most significance for waterbirds will be the designs that MAF propose for the “migratory birds' habitats.”.

In February 2000, a workshop entitled “Wetlands Conservation: Sharing Experience” was hosted by the British Embassy in Seoul. This is believed to be the first workshop at which experienced wetland practitioners (including representatives from the UK's English Nature, RSPB and Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust) presented on the subject in South Korea. Various concepts of water quality management, shorebird “scrapes” and birdwatching facilities were introduced at that meeting.

This international workshop was held as very few “eco-parks” and wetland designs have been created in South Korea; and because there are no wetland management plans for wildlife nor any trained wetland managers nationwide. Examples of “created” wetland for wildlife in South Korea include a ribbon of land in Youido in central Seoul, and some artificial lagoon construction in the Nakdong estuary. Reviewing available data, neither are managed regularly for target species, neither support either internationally important concentrations of waterbirds (nor even national concentrations); nor do they regularly support threatened waterbird species.

If “migratory birds' habitats” and “nature preserves” are to be created by MAF to reduce the impacts on migratory bird populations, it seems reasonable to assume that they would include elements of existing wetland designs at these sites and also elements imported from the UK (and elsewhere), both through the workshop and in subsequent study tours made to the UK by a broad range of South Korean activists, researchers, and bureaucrats.

The Saemangeum estuarine system presently supports at least 27 species in internationally important concentrations, the majority of them shorebirds, with most species dependent upon the highly dynamic and productive intertidal zone. With dyke closure as proposed, the whole brackish zone will over time be converted into freshwater, replaced with a rather steep-sided and very exposed lake side, lined by rocks and a road along its entire length. Landward of the road there would be extensive rice-fields - dry in winter, flooded with pumped lake water in May and drained again in the autumn. If the area is to be managed similarly to other reclamation areas in South Korea, much of the stubble will also be burnt over in autumn; and extensively sprayed in spring and summer to reduce weeds and infestation by insects.

MAF claim that displaced shorebirds will be able to use other habitats, and also that the reclamation area will provide suitable habitat and feeding for waterbirds. Artificial bird habitat is proposed as a way of maintaining Saemangeum's bird populations. One option which has been proposed within South Korea includes the creation of shallow lagoons, or “scrapes” - shallow wetlands with controlled water depths (typically between 0.5 m and 1.0 m), and carefully controlled salinity levels and vegetation - presumably either within the 600 ha of artificial marsh, or within the “990 ha natural ecology region”.

3.3 Minsmere RSPB reserve: scrape creation and management issues

Probably the most well-known example of a “wader scrape” is to be found at Minsmere in the UK, where the design was pioneered in 1962 before being replicated at Mai Po in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The first Minsmere Scrape was initially created by excavating four ha of coastal grassland and dry reedbed which were then flooded, with the area expanded to 20 ha in area by 1986.

Initially, shorebird and other waterbird numbers were fairly high, but despite maintaining the same management targets and salinity levels, productivity of the scrape system fell significantly, meaning the area supported fewer waterbirds over time (Burgess, Hirons & Sorensen, 1992) - similar to recently reclaimed areas in South Korea, and a phenomenon also noted in the scrapes created in the Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong which now support less waterbirds than adjacent fish-ponds. From a range of studies, it is apparent that drying and flooding of the system (similar to natural flood-plain wetland) is necessary, to replace nutrient levels in the water, which in turn can lead to an increase in aquatic invertebrates upon which many waterbirds feed. Although bird species diversity has remained reasonably high on the Minsmere Scrape, total numbers of shorebirds peaked at only 1 400 individuals in 1975, and has probably never exceeded 1 000 individuals at peak subsequently (G. Welch, in lit.).

To support a minimum of 300 000 estuarine-dependent shorebirds annually, basic calculations suggest that 300 x 20 ha of brackish and saline scrape would therefore need to be created, covering a minimum of 6 000 ha. Considering the anticipated decline in natural productivity of the system documented at Minsmere and the recommendation to drain the lagoons there once every three to five years (Burgess, Hirons, Sorensen, 1992), a further ca 1 500 ha would then also be required to allow for rotation - meaning a minimum total of 7 500 ha of intensively managed scrapes (or approximately one-quarter of the land to be created through reclamation).

Considering the time required to clear invasive vegetation at Minsmere of 25 man days per ha per year (Burgess, Hirons & Sorensen, 1992), it can also be calculated very approximately that the maintenance of such a system would require a minimum of 25 days x 7 500 ha, or the equivalent of approximately 200 000 man days per year (i.e. more than 500 trained staff working full-time).

As further noted by the present warden of Minsmere, “Although very successful as a visitor focus, in conservation terms, the RSPB would probably not now opt to create a scrape if it were starting Minsmere as a reserve again. Rather we would look to maintain or enhance an existing, natural system. Whilst this might not be so good from a visitor point of view, such a system would be more sustainable and considerably less management intensive” (G. Welch in lit.).

Beyond coarse calculations of area and the management of e.g. invasive vegetation, consideration also needs to be given both to the water quality and availability. The present design of the reclamation project proposed by MAF does not include the maintenance of significant areas of estuarine/brackish water or therefore waterbird habitat able to support estuarine species.

Although the reclaimed area would likely provide more suitable habitat for the three most abundant species of waterbird already found in South Korea ( Mallard, Spot-billed Duck and Baikal Teal) existing concerns about water pollution (reinforced by levels of pollution already being experienced within several reclamation lakes elsewhere in South Korea), combined with the lack of expertise in wetland and wildlife management in South Korea, do not support the simple assertions made by MAF that appropriate bird habitat can be created for the same species presently supported by the Saemangeum estuarine system.

On the contrary, existing evidence very strongly suggests that any created wetland will fail to support the majority of the threatened waterbird species presently being supported by the Saemangeum estuarine system; and that such created areas will also be unable to support significant and internationally important concentrations of other estuarine-dependent species.

4. Summary

The government of South Korea has existing international obligations under both the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity to maintain populations of waterbirds and to manage all wetlands in its territory in a sustainable way. It is clear that the reclamation of the Saemangeum system will lead to declines in several threatened waterbird species, and declines in those species that depend upon estuarine and intertidal areas during part of their biological cycles.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) has the major responsibility for developing the Saemangeum reclamation project. Although MAF has shown great expertise in developing rice cultivation, it lacks experience and understanding of managing wetlands for waterbird populations. The assertions that MAF make on their website relating to waterbirds and waterbird habitat in arguing for the continuation of the project are therefore both oversimplified and misleading, being obviously based on inappropriate and incomplete comparisons of data.

The claim that reclaimed areas are the most important areas for waterbirds is based only on one survey conducted in mid-winter. It ignores available evidence from other seasons showing the importance of estuarine systems, most especially the Saemangeum estuarine system.

MAF also fails to distinguish the global significance of sites to biodiversity.

Although MAF claims that shorebirds will simply shift to presently sub-optimal areas once the Saemangeum estuarine system is reclaimed, it fails to provide appropriate evidence that this will happen; and it fails to provide evidence from any sites where such displacement has occurred and been proven not to lead to long-term declines in the affected species.

As proponents of the reclamation of an internationally important wetland within the territory of a contracting party to the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, MAF are under significant obligation to prove that such displacement can take place without producing a long-term decline in waterbird populations.

MAF also fails to provide any details of the wetland habitat it will create, and information on the management strategies and target species of such designs.

The writers of this report therefore conclude that the commitment to conserve waterbird populations at Saemangeum on the part of the Korean government can only be met by aborting the reclamation scheme.


The author wishes to thank several leading wetland and shorebird specialists for their input into this process, including most especially Dr David Wells, who made many suggestions to improve this draft, and Dr. Phil Battley in New Zealand and Dr. Clive Minton of the Australasian Wader Studies Group in Australia who kindly read through the document in its draft stages and contributed significantly to it.

In addition, Dr. Chris Elphick, a specialist on waterbirds in rice-fields, kindly contributed information and insight, while Dr. Geoff Welch, the warden of Minsmere RSPB reserve also kindly provided references to published materials and substantial insight, much of it reproduced in the section on Minsmere. The British Trust for Ornithology too very kindly responded to requests for information, providing copies of their published studies on Cardiff Bay, providing an extensive list of references and ascertaining the accuracy of the information taken from their reports and reproduced here.

In addition, many thanks must go to Ma Yong-Un and others in KFEM who have so kindly offered to translate the report from English into Korean.


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  • Goss-Custard J., Durrell S. (1990). Bird behaviour and environmental planning: approaches in the study of wader populations. Ibis 132: 273-289.
  • Hanawa, S. (1985). Results of the Nationwide Counts of Waders in Japan. Strix 4: 76-89 (in Japanese).
  • Lawler W. (1995) Wader Roost Construction in Moreton Bay: A feasibility Study into the Construction of Migratory Wader (shorebird) High Tide Roosts in Moreton Bay, Queensland, using Raby Bay as a case study. Consultative document produced for Queensland government.
  • Moores, N. (1999 a). A Survey of the Distribution and Abundance of Shorebirds in South Korea during 1998-1999: Interim Summary. The Stilt, April 1999.
  • Moores, N. (1999 b). Korean Wetlands Alliance National NGO Wetlands Report: Ramsar 1999. 142 pp. published by Yullinmaul, Seoul
  • Parish. F. (1996). Welcoming address in Conservation of Migratory Waterbirds and their Wetland Habitats in the East-Asian Australasian Flyway. Proceedings of an International Worskhop, Kushiro, Japan. 28 Nov-3 Dec 1994. Wetlands International-Asia Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Publication no. 116, and International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau-Japan Committee, Tokyo, 304 pp. Edited by Wells, D.R. & T. Mundkur.
  • Piersma, T. (1985). Abundance of Waders in the Nakdong estuary, South Korea, in September 1984. Wader Study Group Bulletin.44: 21-26.
  • Piersma, T. & A.J. Baker. (2000). Life history characteristics and the conservation of migratory shorebirds. in Conservation Biology Series 2, Behaviour and Conservation. Edited by L. Morris-Gosling & W. Sutherland, the Zoological Society of London. Published by Cambridge University Press.
  • Schekkerman, H., P.L. Meininger and P.M. Meire. 1994. Changes in the waterbird populations of the Oosterschelde (SW Netherlands) as a result of large-scale coastal engineering works. Hydrobiologia 282/283: 509-524.
  • Tulp, I. & P. de Goeij. (1994) Evaluating wader habitats in Roebuck Bay (Northwestern Australia) as a springboard for northward migration in waders, with a focus on great knots. Emu 94: 78-95.
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Additional References with Potentially Relevant Information (provided by the BTO).

  • Ganter, B. & Ebbinge, B.S. (1997) Saltmarsh carrying capacity and the effect of habitat loss on spring staging Brent Geese: two case studies using marked individuals. Pp. 45-51 in: Goss-Custard, J.D.,Rufino, R. & Luis, A. (eds.) Effect of Habitat Loss and Change on Waterbirds. Institute of Terrestrial Ecology Symposium No. 30, Wetlands International Publication No. 42.
  • Ganter, B., Prokosch, P. & Ebbinge, B.S. (1997) Effect of saltmarsh loss on the dispersal and fitness parameters of Dark-bellied Brent Geese. Aquatic Conservation: Marine & Freshwater Ecosystems, 7, 141-151.
  • Hotker, H. (1997) Response of migratory bird populations to the land claim in the Nordstrand Bay, Germany. Pp. 75-82 in: Goss-Custard, J.D., Rufino, R. & Luis, A. (eds.) Effect of Habitat Loss and Change on Waterbirds. Institute of Terrestrial Ecology Symposium No. 30, Wetlands International Publication No. 42.
  • Lambeck, R.H.D. (1991) Changes in abundance, distribution and mortality of wintering Oystercatchers after habitat loss in the Delta Area, SW Netherlands. Acta XX Congressus Internationalis, 2208-2218.
  • Lambeck, R.H.D., Sandee, A.J.J. & de Wolf, L. (1989) Long-term patterns in the wader usage of an intertidal flat in the Oosterschelde (SW Netherlands) and the impact of the closure of an adjacent estuary. J. Appl. Ecol., 26,419-432.
  • Laursen, K., Gram, I., Alberto, L. (1981) Short-term effects of reclamation on numbers and distribution of waterfowl at H?er, Danish Wadden Sea. Proc. Third Nordic Congress of Ornithology, 97-118.
  • McLusky, D.S., Bryant, D.M. & Elliott, M. (1992) The impact of land-claim on macrobenthos, fish and shorebirds on the Forth Estuary, eastern Scotland. Aquatic Cons.: Marine & Freshwater Ecosystems, 2, 211-222.
  • Meire, P. (1991) Effects of a substantial reduction in intertidal area on numbers and densities of waders. Acta XX Congressus Internationalis, 2219-2227.
  • Meire, P. (1996) Distribution of Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus over a tidal flat in relation to their man prey species, Cockles Cerastoderma edule and Mussels Mytilus edulis did it change after a substantial habitat loss? Ardea, 84A, 525-538

(This Report is available as PDF document. Updated version October 08)