The tidal-flats contained within Incheon metropolitan administrative district are exceptional in many ways: they experience one of the largest tidal ranges in the world (reaching to nearly 10m on the biggest tides); they lie adjacent to some of the most densely populated areas, and are depended upon by numerous local communities, yet remain in some parts largely inaccessible (due to military restrictions); and they support a globally unique, Yellow Sea-representative range of species. Worldwide, only selected sites in Incheon support nesting Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes , Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor , Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi and Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus (ostralegus) osculans ; in South Korea, only in Incheon do they support large numbers of shorebirds during migration and Red-crowned Cranes Grus japonensis in winter and only at Song Do, internationally important concentrations of the globally Vulnerable Relict Gull Larus relictus .
Amongst Incheon's tidal-flats, the most well-known are probably those lying between Ganghwa island and Yeongjong (the site of the recently-opened international airport), but one of the most remarkable is even more easily-accessible: Song Do, only 20 minutes south of downtown Incheon (located at 37 D 25 N, 126 D 39 E).
Photo © Nial MOORES
Song Do town is an area of very rapid development, and has been identified by the incoming President Noh as the site for South Korea's future 'silicon valley'. The vast majority of the former tidal-flat has already been reclaimed, with further plans still to reclaim the little that remains (starting in 2004). The present project as proposed not only requires dredging of all adjacent shallows, but also will extend out to the deeper Ganghwa channel, which carries the Han River's water out into the Yellow Sea. This ensures both that the southern outer part of the greater Han-Imjin estuary will be lost (and with it the ecological communities that depend upon such a niche), and also that tidal-flats will not be able to reform beyond the outer seawall in the future.
At present, probably only ca 1 000 ha remains at lowest tide: soft, deep, black mud, traversed by fisher folk who harvest shellfish under license and control. It is contained within a rectangle: the lower Gangwha Channel forming the western outer edge; a massive reclamation site to the south (now being organized with an industrial framework of roads, lights and buildings); an industrial wharf to the north; and a major road running along its inland, eastern flank. The hinterland has already been converted almost entirely to human use: a ribbon of concrete which has been temporarily named the Aam Do Seaside Park sits in between the road and the tidal-flats, while behind the road, love motels, an aerodrome for recreational use, Song Do funfair and seaside resort, and expansive, weed-covered parking lots and industrial land.
Despite its obviously degraded condition, the tidal-flat still clearly meets all three of Ramsar's waterbird criteria for identification as an internationally important wetland. It regularly supports more than 1% of the world's population of Saunders's Gull, with a peak of 640 in December 2001; and it has also, uniquely for Korea, supported more than 1% of the world's Relict Gulls, with the peak count of 143 in February 2001 representing between 1 and 5% of the total global population. It probably also supports internationally important concentrations of Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris and nationally significant numbers of shorebird species, including Dunlin Calidris alpina , Eurasian Numenius arquata orientalis and the near-threatened Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis . Furthermore, it regularly supports an assemblage of rare or endangered species. In addition to the species noted above, there are records of Black-faced Spoonbill, Chinese Egret and Eastern Oystercatcher, which along with Saunders's Gull even nested on the reclaimed land to the south.
With its urban context, Song Do tidal-flat offers a near-unique conservation opportunity in and for South Korea. The "park" is already popular with visitors, and is a featured stop on Incheon City's guided bus tour. With some modification and enhanced public awareness materials, the site could easily be improved over time to provide an essential locale for environmental education and "nature awareness", serving southern Seoul and Suwon as well as Incheon itself. This would both enhance Incheon City's/Song Do's reputation as an international city of the future (a frequently displayed publicity logo); and help national government to fulfill some of its international obligations under both the Convention on Biological Diversity and Ramsar.
The future of Song Do tidal-flat should lie with careful planning and wise use: benefiting people, wetlands and the species they depend upon, for now and for future generations.
The whole area is slated for reclamation, with work scheduled to commence in 2004. At present, the site is heavily disturbed both by vehicles running along the road lining the tidal-flat, and more recently by the opening of a recreational flying school: The Incheon Seongchon Airplane School (tel: 032 832 6158; mobile 011 9634 1358). Planes and motorized gliders have been seen flying low over the tide-line and sea (at high tide), even purposefully "dive-bombing" gulls on the shoreline (e.g. on Feb 16, 2003).
In addition, poor water quality probably limits tidal-flat biomass; and the lack of a marshy hinterland/roost sites for shorebirds limits shorebird usage.
Cancellation of reclamation is the most urgent priority. Future planning/design work should focus on reducing disturbance and improving the comfort and educational experience of visitors (e.g. by limiting aircraft flylines; by planting screening vegetation between the road and the "park"; and by the placement of educational notice boards). Longer term work, based on monitoring of wildlife populations and human use, might include some system of zoning, and the building up of the upper shore line in areas to allow for the colonization of salt-marsh and the provision of shorebird roost sites. Such work would further enhance the wildlife, educational and recreational value of the site. If the local fishing communities and administrative bodies were in consensus, the site should then be designated under the Ramsar Convention and other relevant species' networks.