Diving in the coral reef, Mimaropa, Mulaong, South China Sea, Philippines, Asia. CREDIT: J.W. Alker/Corbis

China's economic boom has seen its coral reefs shrink by at least 80

percent over the past 30 years, a joint Australian study found, with

researchers describing "grim" levels of damage and loss.

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from the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral

Reef Studies and the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology said their

survey of mainland China and South China Sea reefs showed alarming


"We found that coral abundance has declined by at

least 80 percent over the past 30 years on coastal fringing reefs along

the Chinese mainland and adjoining Hainan Island," said the study,

published in the latest edition of the journal Conservation Biology.


offshore atolls and archipelagos claimed by six countries in the South

China Sea, coral cover has declined from an average of greater than 60

percent to around 20 percent within the past 10-15 years," it added.


development, pollution and overfishing linked to the Asian giant's

aggressive economic expansion were the major drivers, the authors said,

describing a "grim picture of decline, degradation and destruction".


ongoing economic expansion has exacerbated many wicked environmental

problems, including widespread habitat loss due to coastal development,

unsustainable levels of fishing and pollution," the study said.

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loss in the South China Sea — where reefs stretch across some 30,000

square kilometers (12,000 square miles) — was compounded by poor

governance stemming from competing territorial claims.

Some marine

parks aimed at conservation had been established but study author Terry

Hughes said they were too small and too far apart to arrest the decline

in 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," he said.

More than 30 years

of unbridled economic growth has left large parts of China

environmentally devastated, with the nation suffering from some of the

most severe air, water and land pollution in the world, global studies

have shown.

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Such destruction has led to widespread local

frustration and a number of protests, some of which have succeeded in

getting proposed new factories and facilities canceled or postponed.


government has laid out a road map to transform China's development

mode to one that is more environmentally friendly and less dependent on

headlong economic growth.

The South China Sea is strategically

significant, home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes

and believed to be rich in resources.

China claims most of the sea

including waters near the shores of its neighbors. Rival claimants

include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and tensions over

the issue have flared in recent years.