Large-scale Wetland Reclamation of Song Do Tidal-flat Approved

Birds Korea, March 24th 2009.

On March 18th 2009, a proposed large-scale reclamation project (1015ha) at Song Do (Incheon, Republic of Korea/ROK) was discussed by a Review Panel held under the auspices of the national Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs. The Panel approved 715ha of the area for reclamation, and according to media proposed that 300ha of the planned reclamation be set aside for wild birds. The national Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs (MLTM) then stated that construction of this reclamation project will start in June 2010.

Since 2000, at least 13 species of waterbird have been recorded at Song Do in Ramsar-defined internationally important concentrations (of 1% or more of population), with ten of these in internationally important concentrations on the “Song Do Tidal-flat” (lying between 37º 23' N, 126º 41' E and 37º 22' N, 126º 43' E) since 2006. These include the globally Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer, Vulnerable Saunders’s Gull Larus saundersi, and the nation’s largest concentration of the Near-threatened Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa in 2007/2008.

As demonstrated by the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program (e.g. Moores et al., 2008) and other research throughout the world, loss of key shorebird feeding habitat results in e.g. increased mortality (e.g. Goss-Custard et al., 2006), and to declines in population in affected species over time (Baker et al., 2004). It is therefore anticipated that any further reclamation (i.e. conversion from wetland to land) of tidal-flats at Song Do will cause further declines in e.g. the Near-threatened Black-tailed Godwit, the Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris, as well as the globally Vulnerable Saunders’s Gull – three species that are supported by the Song Do Tidal-flat in internationally important concentrations and which are also already considered in decline nationally and at the population level.


Located in Incheon City, tidal-flats in Song Do were formerly very extensive (>5000 ha), and part of the massive Gyeonggi Bay tidal-flat system. The Gyeonggi Bay system has a tidal range during spring tides of >9m, and broad tidal-flats that until the 1980s were continuous at low tide along very approximately 100 km of coast north-south and around large near-shore islands, north to include Yeongjong and Ganghwa Islands, and south to Namyang and Asan Bays.

Image 1: Songdo Tidal-flat and Sorae Creek, Photo ©

Shorebirds in Gyeonggi Bay were first surveyed comprehensively in the 1980s, when at least four internationally important shorebird sites were identified: Ganghwa Island, Yeongjong Island, Namyang Bay and Asan Bay (Long et al., 1988). Subsequent surveys have confirmed that Gyeonggi Bay is extremely important for several globally threatened waterbirds, supporting e.g. breeding Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes, Saunders’s Gull Larus saundersi and Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus (ostralegus) osculans – the latter two species both breeding at Song Do.

In recent decades there has been very extensive reclamation within Gyeonggi Bay, with e.g. Yeongjong Island and Namyang and Asan Bays now largely reclaimed or degraded through reclamation. Recent survey work indicates declines in many shorebird species at these key sites within Gyeonggi Bay between e.g. 1988, 1998 and 2008 (Moores et al., 2008).

Most of the tidal-flats at Song Do have also been reclaimed, in a series of projects initiated in the 1970s and 1980s. Recent reclamation (within this decade) has also been promoted as part of the development of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), constructed on former tidal-flat and sea-shallows across an area that will extend to 5,300 ha. As a result, several domestic and overseas bodies have invested in recent reclamation at Song Do, including through Urban Planning (to make “a new Chicago”) and through establishing high-tech driven industries there.

There are very few data on shorebirds and waterbirds at Song Do before 2000 (due to strict access restrictions), but the globally Vulnerable Relict Gull Larus relictus for example has already become almost lost to the Song Do inter-tidal wetlands since 2001 (with e.g. peak counts at Song Do of 143 in February 2001; 14 in 2003; six in February 2007; and only one in January 2009). This decline in Relict Gull has been coincident with loss and degradation of the species’ preferred feeding areas at Song Do due to reclamation. Declines in several other species (including Chinese Egret) also appear probable based on recent count data.

Image 2: IFEZ area Songdo, Photo ©

There is now only one large and complex area of tidal-flat remaining at Song Do, from hereon called “The Song Do Tidal-flat”. This is the same area which, based on information provided by media and through inquiries to MLTM officials (March 23rd and 24th), is to be reclaimed.

The Song Do Tidal-flat lies between Song Do to the north, and Sorae and Oido towns to the south, and is comprised of approximately 800 ha of tidal-flats and 400 ha of sea-shallows at low tide, fed by the Sorae creek (Image 1).

In addition, based on satellite images, there are several further smaller patches of tidal-flats at Song Do presently missed by reclamation, including one of c. 600 ha to the western seaward side of ongoing IFEZ reclamation work (and thus covered by tides for most of any tidal-cycle); one of c.150 ha which will be reclaimed (according to IFEZ maps and proposals); and one of 100 ha or so, which presently forms the eastern edge of an ongoing reclamation project (hereon collectively called “Song Do North”).

Incheon city and other reclamation proponents have long aimed to reclaim much of the Song Do Tidal-flat, and maps (including national road maps) have shown most of the area as land with infrastructure for several years. A small part of the Song Do Tidal-flat (c. 300 ha), containing some sand-banks and shellfish beds, lies to the south of the Sorae Creek, and is apparently not included in IFEZ proposals, presumably because it lies outside of the jurisdiction of Incheon City.

The possibility of cancellation of further IFEZ reclamation proposals, including that for the Song Do Tidal-flat, seemed to come with repeated national government statements that no more large-scale reclamation projects would be permitted within the ROK. These positive statements were made at numerous public fora and in submissions to the Ramsar Convention Secretariat and to the Tenth Ramsar Conference of the Parties (October-November 2008). This commitment to no more large-scale reclamation within the ROK is therefore included in the formal Ramsar literature (Ramsar Resolution X.22 paragraph 22: “WELCOMES the statement by the Republic of Korea to the 35th meeting of Ramsar’s Standing Committee that intertidal mudflats should be preserved and that no large-scale reclamation projects are now being approved in the Republic of Korea”).

Domestically too, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs [MLTM] also recently developed the National Wetlands Management Plan (2007-2011) which aims at, among many positive goals, no national net loss of wetlands (ROK National Ramsar Report 2008, section 1.2.1). Furthermore, Incheon City hosted the annual meeting of the Flyway Partnership (a formal expert network of government and non-government bodies originating from a Ramsar convention initiative) in November 2008, suggesting that Incheon City was itself better recognising its obligations to the conservation of the Flyway and migratory waterbirds, as at Song Do – a wetland within its jurisdiction.

In spite of these formal obligations and recent public statements, further large-scale reclamation at Song Do was discussed by a panel of Government officials (MLTM), experts and NGOs at a formal meeting on March 18th 2009. This meeting was quickly followed by a formal MLTM statement confirming that a 715ha reclamation project at Song Do is now permitted, along with ten further reclamation projects (totalling an additional 953.14 ha nationwide). As some kind of mitigation, it is apparently bring proposed that 300 ha at Song Do will be left as habitat for “wild birds”. The MLTM state that after further assessment, construction will start in June next year (2010).

This decision to permit further large-scale reclamation at Song Do, and the approval of several other reclamation projects both in July 2008 and again in March 2009, apparently signals that national policy still remains strongly supportive of tidal-flat reclamation.

Site Description

The Song Do Tidal-flat – lying between Song Do and Sorae (between 37º 23' N, 126º 41' E and 37º 22' N, 126º 43' E) - contains approximately 800 ha of tidal-flat and 400 ha of sea-shallows at low tide contained within a diamond or rectangular-shaped “bay.” This “bay” is open to the west, with recent land created by large-scale reclamation (i.e. within the past decade) and a road to the north; a narrower strip of reclaimed land and road to the east, with new road and other construction along its edge (started in 2007/2008), and reclaimed land with limited access to the south (an area of older reclaimed land which is still largely “undeveloped”). In January 2009, construction also started on a new harbour/port in the north-west of the wetland.

Exposed tidal-flats spread approximately 3 or 4 km westward at low tide, and are completely inundated on spring high tides. On neap tides, extensive areas of tidal-flat remain exposed, and are used by both roosting and feeding shorebirds throughout the tidal-cycle.

Tidal-flat substrates are quite complex (as they naturally comprise the southern part of the outermost Han-Imjin Estuary system), mostly made up of silt and mud, with some patches of sand-mud, but no high sandbars or islands north of the Sorae Creek.

Waterbird Usage/Value

There is little data on waterbirds for the Song Do Tidal-flat before 2006, as access was strictly restricted. However, in 2001, 143 Relict Gull Larus relictus were counted on tidal-flats within IFEZ (an area now largely reclaimed); and Saunders’s Gulls have been well-documented breeding within the IFEZ area since c. 2000 (with such information well-known to developers and Incheon City government, and even used at times to promote the environmental credentials of the development).

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Songdo Tidal-flat, Photo © Jan van de Kam / Birds Korea

Since 2006 especially, research has confirmed that the Song Do Tidal-flat is used by large numbers of feeding shorebirds and gulls at low tide and throughout the whole cycle of neap tides in all months. During very high spring tides, shorebirds move at high tide into adjacent reclamation areas, including part of the nearby Shiwa Reclamation area, and also (at least until 2008) into lagoons and wet reclamation areas to the north (Song Do North).

Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi, Songdo tidal-flat
March 22 2009, Photo © Tim Edelsten / Birds Korea

Comprehensive nationwide shorebird counts by Birds Korea in partnership with the Australasian Wader Studies Group in the first half of May 2008 at the anticipated peak period of northward shorebird migration found c. 270,000 shorebirds nationwide (Moores et al., 2008). Of this total, 27, 730 shorebirds (or >10%) were counted at Song Do, with 18,218 of these on the Song Tidal-flat, and the remainder within Song Do North. The most abundant shorebird species during that count on the Song Do Tidal-flat were Great Knot (8,000), Dunlin Calidris alpina (6,500) and Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica (1000), while 11 (>1% of the world population) Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer were also recorded.

On southward migration (August-October), the Song Do Tidal-flat has also proven in recent years to be the most important site nationwide for the Near-threatened Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, while 584 Saunders’s Gull (or almost 8% of the species’ global population based on Wetlands International, 2006) were counted at Song Do by the Birds Korea winter survey in January 2009, with 480 of these on the Song Tidal-flat, and the remainder on tidal-flats of Song Do North.

The proposed 715ha reclamation at Song Do will lead to further loss of feeding habitat for these species, and, it is expected, to further declines in their populations.

The significance of this proposed reclamation project also needs to be considered against the background of further loss and degradation of other internationally important shorebird and waterbird sites nationwide (at e.g. other parts of Song Do; at Saemangeum, where 40,000 shorebirds were still present in May 2008, anticipated to fall to <10,000 by May 2010; at Asan Bay, where reclamation is ongoing; and at Namyang Bay and Aphae Island, where further reclamation projects are proposed).

International Importance and Selected peak Counts at Song Do Tidal-flat

At least 13 species of waterbird have been recorded in Ramsar-defined internationally important concentrations at Song Do since 2001, and ten of these have been recorded in internationally important concentrations of more than 1% of population at the Song Do Tidal-flat since 2006 (Table 1). As several of these species are globally threatened and as some species are more abundant during northward migration, others on southward migration, and others during the winter/non-breeding season, the Song Do Tidal-flat meets at least three Ramsar criteria (2,5 and 6) for identification as internationally important.

Global StatusPeak Count (Song Do Tidal Flat Only)% of Flyway or Global population
Black-faced SpoonbillPlatalea minorEndangered584%
Eastern OystercatcherHaematopus (ostralegus) osculans
Mongolian PloverCharadrius mongolus 10001.5%
Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosaNear-threatened79505%
Eurasian CurlewNumenius arquata 10003%
Far Eastern CurlewNumenius madagascariensis 8702%
Common GreenshankTringa nebularia 30003%
Nordmann’s GreenshankTringa guttiferEndangered111%
Great KnotCalidris tenuirostris 80002%
DunlinCalidris alpina 6000 – 14,8001%
Saunders’s GullLarus saundersiVulnerable4806%
Table 1: Species Recorded in Internationally Important Concentrations at the Song Do Tidal-flat since 2006, with % of Population based on Wetlands International (2006).

Relict Gull Larus relictus, "Song Do North" February 2003, Photo © Birds Korea

Information on the international importance to waterbirds of tidal-flats at Song Do has long been public. TV and other media presented images of Relict Gulls at Song Do first in 2001; and data from Birds Korea surveys and counts at Song Do have made available online in Korean and English in various postings on the Birds Korea websites, first in 2003. Information and selected count data have also been presented in direct meetings with officials from both the Ministry of Environment and the MLTM, most especially in 2008; through presentations at several symposia; and in symposia proceedings and reports, provided to government officials and media.

Birds Korea has this week contacted officials within several departments of the MLTM to confirm the exact location of the tidal-flats at Song Do which will be reclaimed. Based on media reports and their information, it is believed to be >90% of the Song Do Tidal-flat. We are also requesting more detailed information on the proposed assessment process from the MLTM and are forwarding on our concerns to relevant bodies, including The Getbol Forum Korea, the Ramsar Secretariat and shorebird and conservation experts in Australia.

We are concerned at the anticipated major impacts on biodiversity of this reclamation project, and also that, as at Saemangeum, small-scale and inappropriate mitigation efforts will again be promoted in order to present further large-scale reclamation as ‘environmentally friendly’. In consideration of e.g. tidal-flats’ great importance to biodiversity and their role as carbon sinks, it is clear that no tidal-flat reclamation can ever be genuinely ‘environmentally-friendly’. Further, the ecological requirements of estuarine species need to be fully considered in any mitigation proposal. Replacing naturally food-rich tidal-flats that can be used throughout the tidal-cycle with freshwater areas, or leaving tidal-flats that are only available to feeding shorebirds for limited periods of the tidal-cycle will not mitigate for the impacts of large scale inter-tidal habitat loss on shorebirds and other inter-tidal wetland biodiversity.

Birds Korea will re-submit our data and opinion in April to decision-makers, with the aim of supporting the assessment process. This especially as the ROK is thoroughly committed to “Address(ing) environmental issues in the planning stage of development projects; prevent damages before they occur by reinforcing comprehensive and transparent environmental impact assessments prior to any construction” (ROK Ramsar National Report, 2008).


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Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Songdo Tidal-flat, Photo © Jan van de Kam / Birds Korea