Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Nansha port of Guangzhou City, China
As part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, China plans to build or expand at least 70 ports. Photo by View Stock/Alamy Stock Photo

Potential Perils of a Modern-Day Silk Road

With new and expanded ports, China’s Belt and Road Initiative could further threaten ailing marine life.

Authored by

by Kimberly Riskas

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Construction is underway on China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project hailed as a modern-day Silk Road. This vast network of new highways, rail lines, and shipping corridors will create trade pathways between China and more than 60 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

To achieve this, ports will be key. By 2027, China plans to build or expand at least 70 ports, which will involve modifying or removing areas of coastal habitat such as mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass meadows.

Despite the project’s scale, no one has evaluated how BRI port development may affect marine species, says Mischa Turschwell, a marine ecologist at Australia’s Griffith University.

“There hasn’t been much attention paid to the marine side of things,” says Turschwell, “even though a significant area of coastal habitat could be impacted by port development and increased shipping traffic.”

A new study led by Turschwell finds that more than 400 threatened marine species could have their habitat altered by planned BRI port infrastructure, and 200 species could be at risk from shipping and noise pollution. Alarmingly, more than 30 of these species are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Turschwell and his colleagues used spatial data to quantify potential threats. They analyzed how each BRI port and shipping lane overlapped with different habitat types, and compared that with areas inhabited by plants and animals included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Their results show that damage to coastal habitats is expected to be greatest in the central Indian Ocean near the Maldives and the Chagos Islands, where seagrass meadows and coral reefs would be damaged by dredging and increased shipping traffic.

The study also found that West Africa is a hotspot for threatened species likely to be affected by planned port development, with the expansions posing a risk to the African manatee, several sharks and rays, and the critically endangered Atlantic humpback dolphin, among others.

The BRI’s global reach is bad news for marine mammals, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. According to the study’s spatial analysis, seven marine mammal species are likely to experience impacts from both shipping and underwater noise pollution.

However, the findings probably underrepresent the true number of species and habitats that will be affected, says Turschwell. The focus on IUCN-listed species leaves out those that haven’t yet been assessed, he explains, and marine habitat maps are not always complete.

“It is very difficult to model a complex, large-scale project such as the BRI,” says Alex Lechner, a landscape ecologist at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, who was not involved with the study.

In particular, scientists need to know how increased shipping traffic might impact biodiversity, he adds.

Unfortunately, that data isn’t available yet, says marine scientist Rod Connolly, study coauthor and director of the Global Wetlands Project at Griffith University. “We need detailed data on port size, quantity of shipping, and location of new routes,” explains Connolly.

Otherwise, he says, “the true impacts of these ports won’t be known until they’re built.”

Turschwell worries that increased shipping will expose fragile habitats to new dangers, such as invasive species and oil spills.

“Port development is a starting point for continual degradation,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of these habitats left, so it’s of critical importance to save what we still have.”