Conserving China’s Largest Eelgrass Bed

We implement our work in China through close partnerships with a leading local NGO named Qingdao Marine Conservation Society (QMCS) — which was established with technical support from Ocean Outcomes. This update and video from our partners at QMCS highlights the work we are doing on the ground to improve small-scale fisheries and conservation outcomes along the coastline of the Yellow Sea.

This short video produced by QMCS highlights work to preserve eelgreass beds in the Yellow Sea — described in more detail below.

Eelgrass beds once flourished in the Yellow Sea

Across the Yellow Sea Ecoregion (YSE), eelgrass provides irreplaceable ecological functions that delivered essential biological, economic and social value. Over the past 30 years, eelgrass beds have declined significantly, primarily from human impacts such as coastal reclamation, unsustainable fishing, irresponsible mariculture, pollution, and global warming.

From 2015-2019, the Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute (YSERI) and Beihai Bureau of the Ministry of Natural Resources (BBMNR) discovered a significant eelgrass bed located in the YSE’s Bohai Bay. The bed has an estimated total size of 50 square kilometers, over 12 times larger than the previously known eelgrass bed in the seas around China.

With support from the Pew Marine Fellowship, since 2021 Songlin Wang has worked with his colleagues at QMCS to safeguard the Bohai Bay Eelgrass Bed’s (BBEB) ecological integrity, through establishment of a legally recognized, effectively managed marine protected area (MPA).

Bohai Map Bohai Bay Eelgrass Bed and surrounding communities. Left: Caofeitian District and Letin Town in Hebei; right: Longdao-Dragon Island.

On the ground research informs improvement opportunities

Initially, Songlin and QMCS teammates worked with a local fisher and Prof. Hui Liu, a leading YSERI researcher who first reported the BBEB, to conduct research on the BBEB's ecological values. A research report on Caofeidian Seagrass Bed Fishery Resources and Biodiversity was completed, in support of the BBEB’s ecological functions as an Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) and critical habitat for endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) marine species, with various immediate and potential threats to BBEB also identified during the research.

Bohai Vessel and Survey QMCS team conducting field survey at landing ports.

Over a two year period, the team conducted interviews with stakeholders representing three local fishing towns/communities around the seagrass bed. The interviews aimed to strengthen the understanding of their livelihood, economic and social development needs, and willingness to support seagrass bed protection. The team also conducted fishing port investigations around the seagrass bed, to enhance the understanding of the complexity of the fishing activities and collect evidence of illegal and destructive fishing operations around the BBEB.

Working together with local fisher Mr Liu Cuibo and Mr Wang Jianming from the local civil society partner, the Tianjin Binhai Jiangbei Wetland Conservation Center.

Aligning key stakeholders towards positive policy outcomes

The team has successfully aligned key nongovernmental stakeholders to support community co-management and to advocate for positive government decisions. For example, they engaged small-scale fishers and co-designed eelgrass friendly fishing methods, and hosted a key online multi-stakeholder workshop on BBEB MPA protection and management strategies. The workshop had over 20 participants, including experts on MPAs, ecological restoration, fishery resources management, fishery representatives, and civil society organization (CSO) partners. To synergize efforts to influence government decision-makers, the team drafted a policy recommendation letter regarding the BBEB’s conservation and fishery management in the BBEB. The letter was to be submitted to the central government and relevant local government authorities.

Bohai workshop
A screenshot from the online workshop Conservation and Management of Bohai Bay Eelgrass Bed, which included participation from local fishing communities.

In addition, the team built a growing base of public opinion support for national level eelgrass bed conservation policy. Utilizing social media, the team was able to release several popular science articles to better communicate their findings to the public. The article “Floating with the Waves, Dancing in the Waves” was published in “Caring for Water Fairies” of the “Blue Star Messenger” book series. Additionally, through working with their local civil society partner, Tianjin Binhai Jiangbei Wetland Conservation Center, they produced the short documentary above about their work to date, titled Bohai Bay’s Treasure. The documentary includes interviews with experienced fishers, showing the connection between the fishing production of the fishers in Bohai Bay and the eelgrass beds. The Chinese version of the video released on Weibo had over 11,000 views within the first few weeks of its release.

Bohai at Sea Filming the eelgrass bed at sea.

Sharing findings and expanding awareness internationally and locally

In September 2022, the QMCS team was interviewed by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), sharing the findings and lessons learned from the project, as well as the experience of interacting with the community and fishers. The interview article was published on WWF's WeChat in October and reprinted by QMCS, contributing to raising public awareness of the BBEB conservation.

In June 2023, the team organized a capacity building webinar dedicated to Chinese NGO fellows in marine protection, focusing on the theme of seagrass bed conservation and restoration. The workshop was made possible with support from UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme, and another Chinese partner — the SEE Foundation, and it provided educational opportunities for the 35 participants. The team was also able to engage elementary and high school students in eelgrass bed education, by compiling their research into multimedia materials.

Bohai classroom A nature education course in a local elementary school in the YSE.

Next steps towards ensuring effective conservation

To further develop an effective conservation strategy, the QMCS team has been collecting international eelgrass conservation cases and management best practices. This compilation covers various practices such as eelgrass bed protection, eelgrass bed restoration, fishery resource enhancement and fishery management, ranging in location from the United States, Europe, and other regions. Additionally, an expert-reviewed recommendation letter based on the project’s experience, on strengthening conservation of the eelgrass beds in Bohai Bay, will be submitted as a reference file to the decision-makers in both central and local management authorities. The team will also continue to share their outcomes with fishing communities and fellow CSOs, for the purpose of steering a more science-based, effective and equitable BBEB conservation and management effort.

Bohai Fisherman Fisher collecting the long cage net catch.

Continuing the work, the team will pilot-test the effectiveness of eelgrass friendly fishing methods, encourage sharing of this experience across the local fishing communities, and produce a BBEB protection and fisheries management best practice brochure. The brochure will highlight BBEB’s function as a key fishery habitat for the fishery resources with highest economic value, especially octopus and veined rapa whelk. It will also propose the prohibition of destructive fishing activities, advocate the selection of eelgrass bed-friendly fishing gear, and recommend mitigating the negative impacts on the eelgrass bed and fishery resources. To ensure the livelihoods of local fishing communities, the team will support local fishers to maintain fishing rights to BBEB as a candidate MPA or under OECM (other effective conservation measures), with a condition of using eelgrass friendly fishing methods.