2020 Marine Ecology & Environment Status Review

By China Water Risk 18 June, 2021

Oceans have become a new driving force of economic development. How are China's oceans doing on pollution? Check out our review

The overall quality of ocean water remained stable in 2020 with 96.8% at Grade I status; Coastal areas has improved since 2016 with Grade I water almost doubling in five years
4 major seas still need to clean up especially East China Sea, which has 48,000 sq.km worse than Grade I; Yellow Sea's Grade IV+ worsened by 568%
China is closely monitoring main pollution sources from heavy metals to microplastics; the emphasis on the ocean economy is envisioned to speed up the restoration of the ocean

On 24 May 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) released the 2020 Marine Ecology and Environment Status of China (MEESC) Bulletin reporting “the marine ecology and environment remained stable in 2020” and “the overall quality of marine water has improved”.

Key highlights from the 2020 MEESC Bulletin are:

  • The overall quality of marine water remained stable in 2020, with 96.8% of the marine water under China’s jurisdiction achieving Grade I water quality status (almost the same as in 2019);
  • 4% of coastal areas had excellent (Grade I) or good (Grade II) water quality in 2020, up by 0.8% compared to 2019; Grade IV+ marine area mainly located at Liaodong Bay, Yellow River Estuary, Jiangsu Coast, Yangtze River Estuary, Hangzhou Bay, Zhejiang Coast and Pearl River Estuary;
  • The overall marine environmental quality in the ocean dumping zone and oil/gas exploration zone met the environmental protection requirement for marine functional zones;
  • The environmental quality of marine fishery areas was generally in good status;
  • Both the frequency and the cumulative area of recorded red tides in 2020 have decreased from 2019; and
  • No oil spills or chemical spills of more than 100 tonnes in the sea areas under the jurisdiction of China.

We deep dive into seawater quality of China’s coastal areas …

To better understand the terminology of seawater quality used by the report, please refer to the following list:

Grade I: suitable for fishery, ocean natural reserves & rare/endangered aquatic lives
Grade II: suitable for aquaculture, swimming, fit for direct human touch
Grade III: suitable for general use in industrial area and seaside tourist attraction
Grade IV: suitable for use in ports, and ocean development sites
Grade IV+: not suitable for any use


Coastal area seawater quality continues to improve…

 Water in China’s coastal areas has improved since 2016…

…Grade I almost doubled within 5 years

Water quality in China’s coastal areas has improved since 2016 as shown in the chart above. Between 2016-2020, there is an upward trend for Grade I and II (Excellent and Good) water from 73% to 77%; while Grade IV+ has also improved from 13% to 9%. In particularly, Grade I water has almost doubled within these five years. The improvement of coastal areas is likely attributable to the improvement along the rivers flowing into the sea, as shown in the past issues of MEESC Bulletin.

Sea areas under jurisdiction of China remained stable…

Looking further away from the coastal areas, the status of sea areas under China’ jurisdiction was quite stable in 2020. The sea area meeting Grade I accounted for 96.8%, remaining almost the same as in 2019. However, the Grade IV+ slightly increased by 0.1% or 1,730 km2.

96.8% of sea areas under China’s jurisdiction achieved Grade I…

…However there is still room for improvement for the 4 major seas

As most of the seawater is Grade I, we take a deeper look into the 4 major seas’ waters that are worse than Grade I (Grade II-IV+) below.

East China Sea has the most area not meeting Grade I; South China Sea has the least…

Although the overall seawater quality in China remained stable with the majority of Grade I water quality status, there is still some cleaning-up to do for the four major seas. Among them (top left chart), East China Sea has the most sea area worse than Grade I with 48,000 km2 while South China Sea has the least with 8,080 km2.

In terms of percentage of waters worse than Grade I, East China Sea also has the most Grade IV+ water (45%) while Bohai Sea has the least (7%) (top right chart).

We take a closer look at the Grade IV+ waters between 2019-2020. Bohai Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea improved their Grade IV+ waters by 1.0%, 3.4% and 42.0%, respectively. On the other hand, Yellow Sea’s Grade IV+ worsened by a whopping of 568%.

From heavy metals to microplastics, comprehensive list of pollutants monitored…

Apart from monitoring the seawater quality, China is also closely monitoring main pollution sources into a) riverine (sea-going rivers), b) Ocean Dumping Zones, and c) Oil/Gas Exploration Zones. Pollutants monitored include:

  • Amount of sewage
  • Chemical Oxygen Demand
  • Petroleum
  • Ammonia
  • Total Nitrogen & Total Phosphorus
  • Heavy metals: Hexavalent Chromium, Lead, Mercury & Cadmium
  • Marine litter & microplastics

Expect more spotlight on oceans in the 14FYP

Ocean protection and restoration is becoming more emphasized in China’s Five-Year Plans (FYPs). Since the 11th FYP, Ocean has been extended as a special chapter.

China’s coastal regions have laid great emphasis on the ocean economy, as it has become a new driving force of development

Compared to 13FYP’s “strengthen marine economy and ocean environment”, 14FYP has more ambitious goals including establish a modern marine industry and deeply participating in the global marine governance. Moreover, it’s not until recently that a total of 11 Chinese coastal provincial-level regions have included the development of marine economy in their local 14th five-year plans as an important strategy to strengthen their local economy.

The key strategies to promote the Ocean Economy in the 14th Five-year plan are:

  1. To build a modern ocean economy system including ocean equipment, ocean biomedicine, desalinisation, ocean tourism, etc.;
  2. To build a sustainable ocean ecological environment including a basin-delta-coastal pollution control system; and
  3. To deeply involve in global ocean management, collaborate in ocean monitoring and protection.

It is envisioned that the emphasis on ocean economy will help China to accelerate the restoration of its ecological environment of wetland and fishery resources.

We expect to see more stringent regulations & control of China’s coastal waters

Going forward, we expect to see more stringent regulations on pollution prevention and control of China’s coastal waters. Hopefully, the quality of seawater will continue to improve as well as the freshwater. To achieve this would require close and holistic monitoring of all pollution sources from the mountain to the ocean.

Further Reading

  • 2019 State Of Ecology & Environment Report Review – 2019 was a crucial year for the war on pollution. How did water fair? Find out in our review of the report
  • Too Big To Fail! Protect At All Costs – Multiple policy innovations have been unleashed to protect the Yangtze River as it is too big to fail – corporates and investors need to get on top of the YREB to avoid regulatory shocks
  • Capital Two Zones: Protecting Beijing’s Upper Watershed – The Capital Two Zones plan is set to protect Zhangjiakou, upstream of water stressed Beijing & host of the 2022 Winter Olympics – how will this impact industry and development? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu explores
  • Greening The Yellow River For A Beautiful China – As President Xi reiterates the Yellow River’s importance, Dr Zhanfeng Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning expands on policies for “黄河宁,天下平” – a stable Yellow River, peace in China
  • If China Sets An Eco-target, It Reaches It – Global water gurus Prof Asit Biswas & Dr Cecilia Tortajada layout why they are confident China will meet it’s ‘Beautiful’ 2035 target
  • 5 Trends for the Year of the Ox – Will the Ox deliver it’s well known strength and stability and turn stubborn “old” cows into raging bulls for a better planet? Find out what the lunar new year has in store for us in our 5 trends
  • 14FYP – Promote Ecological Conservation – China’s 14FYP has bullish environmental goals but transformative potential is met with challenges, explains CAEPs Dr Dong & Song

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China Water Risk
Author: China Water Risk
We believe regardless of whether we care for the environment that water risks affect us all – as investors, businesses and individuals. Water risks are fundamental to future decision making and growth patterns in global economies. Water scarcity has emerged as a critical sustainability issue for China's economy and since water powers the economy, we aim to highlight these risks inherent in each sector. In addition, we write about current trends in the global water industry, analyze changes occurring both regionally and globally, as well as providing explanations on the new technologies that are revolutionizing this industry.
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