Environmental Pollution and Ecosystem

Analysis on Environmental Pollution in China’s Coastal Ecosystem

  • DOU Qun ,
  • ZHANG Zhenya , *
  • Graduate School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-8572, Japan
*Corresponding author: ZHANG Zhenya, E-mail:

First author: DOU Qun, E-mail:

Received date: 2018-12-21

  Accepted date: 2019-02-20

  Online published: 2019-07-30


All rights reserved


In recent years, with the rapid development of China’s economy, the coastal environment is facing large pressure. However, the coastal environment pollution has not attracted much attention as air pollution and land water pollution. Based on the data on economic development and marine ecosystem environmental pollution which collected from the National Bureau of Statistics and China’s coastal marine environmental monitoring, the paper analyzes the overall coastal ecosystem environment pollution in China as well as the four sea areas the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and South China Sea. The paper finds that the coastal marine environment pollution differ in different sea areas, taking the seawater quality, over-standard pollutants, water quality of rivers entering seas and coastal marine environmental disasters, such as red tide as index. Couple of policy suggestions provided based on research findings.

Cite this article

DOU Qun , ZHANG Zhenya . Analysis on Environmental Pollution in China’s Coastal Ecosystem[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2019 , 10(4) : 424 -431 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764X.2019.04.009

1 Introduction

According to the United Nation, pollution of the marine environment refers to the introduction by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the marine environment, which results or is likely to result in such deleterious effects as harm to living resources and marine life, hazards to human health, hindrance to marine activities, including fishing and other legitimate uses of the sea, impairment of quality for use of sea water and reduction of amenities (UN, 1982).
Marine environment and marine pollution is an important issue, has drawn much attention at worldwide (Worm et al., 2017; Lebreton et al., 2018). Many international organization take the leading role in protecting oceans and seas, and promoting the environmental friendly use of marine resources (OECD, 2010). The Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans which issued in 2017, is a global intergovernmental mechanism directly addressing the connectivity between terrestrial freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, act as the only internationally recognized legal framework for protecting the oceans and seas (UN, 2017).
China has enacted a number of laws and regulations on the marine environment. However, due to the lack of specific legal restrictions and repetitive conflicts between multiple laws, the implementation of the law is relatively poor (Cao et al., 2007). The law related to marine environmental protection needs to be promoted through comprehensive legislation at the national level. At the same time, efforts must be made to strengthen the law enforcement inspectors and gradually solve the general problems of non-compliance with laws. China also issued many official plans focus on the marine environmental protection, but the content of different planning had not been effectively integrated, which led to the low effectiveness and discontinuity of the implementation of the plan.
There are many studies focus on the interactive relationship between economic development and the marine environment in the entire eastern coastal region of China (Wang G, 2013; Ji et al., 2012). The empirical researches have verified the excessive growth of the coastal economy (especially the second industry) had indeed brought different degrees of pollution to the marine ecosystems (He et al., 2014).
Researchers studies the relationship between economic output and marine ecosystem in special sea areas and coastal economic zone, such as the study in Pearl River Delta (Zhang and Wen, 2008), and the impact of land reclamation on the marine ecological environment (Dou, 1994). Study the marine economy and ecological protection in Yangtze River Delta (Ye and Fang, 2005). Some scholars focus on the industry development and marine economic development in Shanghai (Dou, 1989).
There are many studies focus Bohai Rim, such as the relationship between marine economy and marine environment in Bohai Rim (Wang G, 2013), research on Liaoning marine environment (Song et al., 2007), the relationship between tourism development and the marine environment in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region (Dou, 2016; Dou, 2014). Researcher also made efforts on comparative analysis of marine environmental pollution in Bohai Sea, Yangtze River Delta and Pan-Pearl River Delta (Ru, 2013).
The extensive empirical studies confirmed the various types of pollution problems, but still at the stage of discovering problems, such as waste water from land to sea, red tide and plastic pollution, etc. The existing studies lack of in-depth discussion on the links between scientific researches and policy formulation, which is important to find out the countermeasures to control the deterioration of China's marine environment (Dou et al., 2019).
This study aims to bridge the gap between research findings and policy making through analyzing the practical problems of marine environment during China's economic development and provides policy recommendations for China’s improvement on marine environment.

2 Economic development in China’s coastal areas

2.1 Economic development in coastal provinces

China’s coastal area is the core region of the national economy. The total economic output of 11 coastal provinces1)( )The 11 coastal provinces include Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan) accounted for more than half of China’s GDP Since 1997. In 2017, The 11 coastal provinces accounts for 13% of total area in mainland China, while created more than 56% of the wealth.
Because China’s economy is increasingly concentrated in coastal provinces, people are gradually migrating to the coastal regions for job opportunity and better public services (Dou et al., 1999). According to China Statistical Year Book 2018, the population of 11 coastal provinces reached 604.5 million in 2017, accounting for 43.5% of the total population in China. Rapid economic and population growth and population bring large pressure on marine ecosystems, caused negative impacts on China’s coastal environmental.
Table 1 Proportion of GDP of coastal provinces in China during 1997-2016 (unit: %)
Year Tianjin Hebei Liaoning Shanghai Jiangsu Zhejiang Fujian Shandong Guangdong Guangxi Hainan Total
1997 1.65 5.17 4.68 4.50 8.73 6.13 3.75 8.55 10.16 2.38 0.54 56.2
1998 1.66 5.14 4.69 4.60 8.70 6.11 3.82 8.49 10.31 2.31 0.53 56.4
1999 1.70 5.11 4.72 4.74 8.71 6.16 3.86 8.48 10.47 2.23 0.54 56.7
2000 1.72 5.11 4.73 4.83 8.67 6.22 3.81 8.45 10.88 2.11 0.53 57.1
2001 1.76 5.07 4.63 4.79 8.69 6.34 3.74 8.45 11.07 2.10 0.53 57.2
2002 1.78 4.98 4.52 4.75 8.78 6.62 3.70 8.50 11.18 2.09 0.53 57.4
2003 1.85 4.96 4.30 4.80 8.92 6.96 3.57 8.66 11.36 2.02 0.51 57.9
2004 1.85 5.05 3.97 4.81 8.93 6.94 3.43 8.95 11.23 2.04 0.49 57.7
2005 1.96 5.03 4.04 4.64 9.34 6.73 3.29 9.22 11.32 2.00 0.46 58.0
2006 1.92 4.93 4.00 4.54 9.34 6.75 3.26 9.41 11.42 2.04 0.46 58.0
2007 1.88 4.86 3.99 4.47 9.30 6.70 3.31 9.21 11.36 2.08 0.45 57.6
2008 2.02 4.80 4.10 4.22 9.30 6.44 3.25 9.28 11.04 2.11 0.45 57.0
2009 2.06 4.72 4.16 4.12 9.43 6.29 3.35 9.28 10.81 2.12 0.45 56.8
2010 2.11 4.67 4.22 3.93 9.48 6.34 3.37 8.96 10.53 2.19 0.47 56.3
2011 2.17 4.70 4.26 3.68 9.42 6.20 3.37 8.70 10.20 2.25 0.48 55.4
2012 2.24 4.61 4.31 3.50 9.38 6.01 3.42 8.67 9.90 2.26 0.50 54.8
2013 2.28 4.48 4.29 3.44 9.42 5.95 3.45 8.71 9.85 2.28 0.50 54.6
2014 2.30 4.30 4.18 3.44 9.51 5.87 3.52 8.68 9.91 2.29 0.51 54.5
2015 2.29 4.12 3.97 3.48 9.70 5.93 3.59 8.72 10.07 2.32 0.51 54.7
2016 2.29 4.11 2.85 3.61 9.92 6.06 3.69 8.72 10.37 2.35 0.52 54.5
2017 2.24 4.11 2.83 3.70 10.38 6.26 3.89 8.78 10.85 2.24 0.54 55.8

Data Source: China Statistical Yearbook, 1997-2018. This study does not include Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

Because of the relatively faster development of the central and western regions of China, the coastal provinces has showed a decline in proportion of GDP in last decade, but still the main driving force for China’s economic growth.

2.2 The GRP of three coastal economic zones

China’s coastal economy is concentrated in three major economic zones: the Yangtze River Delta with Shanghai as the center, the Bohai Economic Rim including Tianjin, Shandong, Liaoning and Hebei, and the Pearl River Delta with Guangdong as the core. The development of these three economic zones largely represent the highest level of China's economic development, and take the leading role in China’s industrialization and modernization.
The Gross Regional Product (GRP) of the Yangtze River Delta and Bohai Rim, each account for about 20% of China’s GDP; the GRP of Guangdong Province, the core area of the Pearl River Delta, has accounted for more than 10% of the country. In other words, the economic output of China’s three coastal economic zones account for more than half of the GDP.
The Bohai Economic Rim which located in the northern part of China’s eastern coast, it is a coastal economic zone with the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei as the center2(Although Beijing is not a coastal province, it is still included in the Bohai Rim because of its importance in national political and economic role.), the Liaodong Peninsula and the Shandong Peninsula as the two wings, with a high level of industrialization and population density. It is the gateway to the world in the northern part of China as an important portal area. The coastal areas include Hebei, Shandong, Liaoning and Tianjin, their Gross Regional Product (GRP) account around 20% of China’s GDP.
The Yangtze River Delta is located at the estuary of China's largest river--the Yangtze River which flow to the East China Sea. The Yangtze River Delta is dense metropolitan areas, also the largest urban agglomeration in China, with the highest degree of urbanization and economic development level in mainland China. The Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone is centered on Shanghai, with Nanjing and Hangzhou as sub-centers. The economic aggregate of the Yangtze River Delta has been standing at around 20% of China’s GDP.
Facing the South China Sea, the Pearl River Delta is located at the estuary of the Pearl River. It has developed water and land transportation and convenient overseas contacts. It is an important gateway to the world in the south of China. Through the close cooperation with Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions, Guangdong province, the core region of the Pearl River Delta, has become China's most dynamic and fastest-growing region, account for more than 10% of China’s GDP.

3 Analysis of China coastal marine environment

Along the eastern and southern continental coastlines of China, there are 4 main sea area: Bohai, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea , the total area of the above 4 Seas is 4.7 million km2 (Wang Y, 2013).
There are many evaluation indicators for marine environmental pollution. The study analyzes China’s marine environmental pollution based on the indicators including seawater environmental quality, major coastal pollutants, water quality of rivers that get into the sea, and marine environmental disasters. The data mainly come from the China’s Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring Network (CCMEMN) which collects information from more than 400 offshore water quality monitoring points every year, monitoring about China’s 200 rivers into the sea, and select more than 400 sources of pollution directly discharged into the ocean.
Fig. 1 GDP of coastal provinces and three economic zones in China
Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China.

3.1 Coastal seawater environmental quality of China

The quality of China’s coastal seawater is gradually improved. According to the national standard “Seawater Quality Standards” issued by China (GB 3097-1997), seawater quality is divided into four classes according to different functions and protection objectives of the sea area3(Class I: adapt to marine fisheries waters, marine nature reserves and cherish endangered marine life reserves.
Class II: adapted to aquaculture areas, bathing beaches, marine sports or recreational areas where the human body is in direct contact with sea water, and industrial water areas directly related to human consumption.
Class III: adapt to the general industrial water area, coastal scenic tourist area.
Class IV: adapted to marine port waters, marine development operations.) The proportion of Class I seawater monitoring increases from 13.4% in 2001 to 34.5% in 2017 while the proportion of Class IV seawater decreased from 11.9% in 2001 to 6.5% in 2017. The proportion of the worst quality below Class IV seawater quality had dropped from 34.5% in 2001 to 15.6% in 2017.
However, coastal seawater pollution situation in China is still serious. The proportion of the worst-quality (class inferior IV) seawater was higher than that of class I seawater during 2001 to 2004, and turned to lower than the proportion of the class I seawater since 2005, and still close to 20% in 2017. The management of sea environmental pollution had not entered a stable stage, the task of strengthening governance and management is very arduous.
The environmental pollution in the East China Sea is the most serious among the four sea areas of China. The proportion of seawater quality that meet with Class I standard is only 12.4% in 2016, but the proportion of seawater quality under Class IV is more than one-third, this closely related to the rapid economic growth in the Yangtze River Delta.
The seawater quality in Bohai area show the deterioration trend from 2016 to 2017, the proportion of Class IV growing from 4.9% to 7.4%, class inferior IV growing from 4.9% to 9.9%, while proportion of class I dropped from 28.4% to 19.8%. As the inland sea of China, Bohai surrounded by the Shandong Peninsula, the Liaodong Peninsula, Tianjin and Hebei Provinces its marine environment is not conducive to spreading of pollutants. Bohai Rim is also the industrial center of northern China, the marine pollution of the Bohai need the special solution.
The South China Sea which is a wide water area, more open to the Pacific Ocean, is relatively conducive to discharging of pollutants. As a result of industrialization, the environment in the South China Sea deteriorate in recent years. The proportion of the inferior class IV seawater reached 15.2% in 2017 while there is no inferior class IV seawater were detected in 2016. It is necessary to pay close attention to the trend of environment deterioration in the future.

3.2 Major over-standard pollutants in China coastal waters

Nutrient salt, organic pollutants and heavy metal ions which are the main pollutant in China's coastal waters, is decreased dramatically. The over-standard ratio4)( The over-standard ratio is the number of monitoring points with over-standard pollutants among all the monitoring points.) are mainly. The Nutrient salt pollution mainly includes inorganic nitrogen and active phosphate, organic pollutants include COD, petroleum pollution, etc. Heavy metal ions mainly include lead, copper, mercury and cadmium.
Fig. 2 Sea Water quality in China’s coastal area during 2001-2017
Source:The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2001-2017.
Fig. 3 Trends of China coastal seawater quality, class I vs. class inferior IV, 2001-2017
Source: The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2001- 2017 (CMEEP)

3.3 Water quality of rivers entering seas

Surface Water Environmental Quality Standards (GB3838- 2002) is the authority for the water quality assessment of the rivers entering the sea. According to the standard, River water quality is divided into five classes, Class I is the best, and Class V is the worst.5)( According to the national standard “Surface Water Environmental Quality Standard” (GB 3838-2002) promulgated by the Chinese Environmental Protection Department, the water environment quality form the best to the worst is divided into Class I, Class II, Class III, Class IV, Class V.)
There are around 200 rivers monitored with a small variation year to year, for example, the monitoring system covered 192 rivers in 2016. The water quality fluctuated during 2011-2017 among the monitored rivers. Only 0.5% rivers can meet with the Class I water quality standard in 2001 and no river met the Class I during 2012-2017.Taking the second best class as the indicator of good quality, the proportion of river in Class II turn worse after improved a bit taking year 2014 as turning point. For the worst water quality, the proportion of Inferior Class V show a overall improved trends with a deterioration in 2015 and 2017.
Table 2 Seawater quality of four sea areas in China, 2016 and 2017
MonitorPoints Class I (%) Class II (%) Class III (%) Class IV (%) Below Class IV (%)
2016 2017 2016 2017 2016 2017 2016 2017 2016 2017
Bohai 81 28.4 19.8 44.4 48.1 17.3 14.8 4.9 7.4 4.9 9.9
Yellow Sea 91 38.5 37.4 50.5 45.1 4.4 9.9 5.5 5.5 1.1 2.2
East China Sea 113 12.4 15.9 31.9 31.0 15.0 12.4 3.5 9.7 37.2 31.0
South China Sea 132 47.7 57.6 40.2 18.2 6.1 5.3 0 3.8 6.1 15.2

Source: China’s Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring, 2016-2017 (CMEEP)

Table 3 Major over-standard pollutants detected ratio in China coastal waters, 2001-2017 (unit: %)
Year Inorganic nitrogen Activephosphate COD Petroleum Lead Copper Mercury Cadmium
2001 67.9 59.9 1.9 18.0 62.9 25.9 6.6 2.0
2002 49.0 49.2 16.1 12.9 48.6 22.2 7.9 2.5
2003 37.5 23.6 4.2 16.0 3.4 5.1 0.8 0.0
2004 34.8 23.5 2.4 9.9 6.4 8.0 3.4 0.0
2005 30.5 20.3 1.8 4.9 2.5 0.7 0.0 0.1
2006 31.4 14.4 2.9 2.9 2.2 0.8 0.2 0.1
2007 34.1 13.4 2.1 3.0 4.0 1.4 0.0 0.0
2008 27.5 10.4 1.1 1.0 1.8 0.7 0.0 0.2
2009 28.3 14.7 1.0 1.5 2.0 0.8 0.3 0.4
2010 35.0 15.0 1.3 2.9 1.2 0.4 0.5 0.5
2011 29.6 11.0 1.7 4.3 5.3 1.3 - 1.0
2012 28.6 15.9 0.3 2.3 0.3 - -
2013 28.6 15.6 4.3 2.0 1.0 - - 0.3
2014 31.2 14.6 1.0 1.7 - - - -
2015 29.2 14.6 1.0 - 0.3 - - -
2016 23.3 10.1 0.7 2.2 0.5 0.5 - -
2017 30.2 7.0 0.7 1.4 - 0.7 - -

Source:The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2001-2017 (CMEEP).
Note: - means had no valid data detected

Fig. 4 Main pollutants over-standard detected in China coastal waters (%) during 2001-2017
Source: The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2001- 2017, (CMEEP)
Among the four major marine areas in China, the water pollution of the Bohai Sea is the worst one, 52% of the rivers is Inferior Class V and Class V in 2016, followed by the Yellow Sea (47%) and East China Sea (32%). The situation in the South China Sea is relatively good, less than 20% of the rivers is Inferior Class V and Class V.
Table 4 Water quality of monitored rivers into the sea, 2011-2017 (unit: %)
Year Class I Class II Class III Class IV Class V Inferior Class V
2011 0.5 11.9 32.5 20.1 7.7 27.3
2012 0.0 13.4 33.3 20.9 8.0 24.4
2013 0.0 12.5 34.0 24.0 11.0 18.5
2014 0.0 15.1 27.3 26.3 13.1 18.2
2015 0.0 11.3 30.2 22.6 14.1 21.5
2016 0.0 13.5 33.3 25.5 10.4 17.2
2017 0.0 13.8 33.8 24.6 6.7 21.0

Source: The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2011- 2017 CMEEP.

Table 5 Ratio of rivers into the four sea areas of China in different water quality (2016) (unit: %)
Area Class I Class II Class III Class IV Class V Inferior Class V
Bohai 0.0 4.3 8.7 34.8 17.4 34.8
Yellow Sea 0.0 5.9 31.4 31.4 15.7 15.7
East China Sea 0.0 12.0 56.0 24.0 8.0 0.0
South China Sea 0.0 25.7 42.9 15.7 2.9 12.9
National average 0.0 13.5 33.3 25.5 10.4 17.2

Source: The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2016 (CMEEP).
Note: The data in the table is the over-standard point detected ratio in %.

3.4 Polluted sources directly discharged into the sea

Land-based pollution is one of the most important sources of offshore marine environmental pollution, and wastewater is a major component of land-based pollution. The sources of pollution directly discharged from the land into the ocean are divided into three types: industrial pollution sources, domestic pollution sources and comprehensive pollution sources. 419 sources is monitored in 2016, and More than 100 cubic meters discharge were monitored per day, about 657.43 million tons in total. Among the different types of pollution sources, the comprehensive pollution source discharges the largest amount of sewage, followed by the industrial pollution source, and the life pollution source discharges the least. Among the major pollutants, the comprehensive pollution sources have the largest emissions; the industrial pollution sources have higher hexavalent chromium emissions than life pollution sources, as for other pollutant indicators, industrial pollution sources are lower than life pollution sources, indicates that the pollution level of life pollution sources is more serious.
According to the monitoring of all major pollution sources in 2001-2017, the wastewater discharge has been increasing significantly.

3.5 Coastal marine environmental disasters

Red tide, a harmful algal bloom, is one of the main problems of marine pollution in China's offshore waters in recent years (Cao, 2016). There are many related factors caused red tide (Song, 2015). One of the important reasons is that a large amount of nitrogen-containing organic pollutant is discharged into seawater, which makes the eutrophication of seawater more serious. East China Sea experienced more red tide than other 3 sea areas of China in 2000s.
Until 2017, East China Sea is still most affected by red tide both in number of occurrences and cumulative area.
Fig. 5 Waste water from sources directly discharged into the sea of China during 2001-2017
Source: The Coastal Marine Environmental Monitoring of China, 2001- 2017 (CMEEP).
Table 6 Number of Red tide happened in China's coastal waters, 2001-2010
Year Bohai Yellow Sea East China Sea South China Sea
2001 20 8 34 15
2002 3 14 51 11
2003 5 12 86 16
2004 12 13 53 18
2005 9 13 51 9
2006 11 2 63 17
2007 7 5 60 10
2008 1 12 47 8
2009 4 13 43 8
2010 7 9 39 14

Data Source: The coastal water quality environmental bulletin of China 2001- 2010.

Table 7 Red tide in four sea areas of China, 2017
Area Number of occurrences Cumulative area (km2)
Bohai 12 342
Yellow Sea 3 100
East China Sea 40 2189
South China Sea 13 1048

Data Source: The coastal water quality environmental bulletin of China 2017.

The average eutrophication rate in China’s coastal waterswas 31.2% in 2016. The area with a high eutrophication rate(moderate and above) was mainly concentrated in the Liao-dong Bay, the Yangtze River estuary, the Pearl River estuaryand some coastal waters of Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
For the four sea areas, the East China Sea is moderately eutrophic, with an eutrophication rate of 46.8%; other sea areas have a relatively low eutrophication rate, of which Bohai is 37.0%, followed by the South China Sea (22.0%) and Yellow Sea (19.8%).

4 Discussion and conclusions

China has taken the marine environment as an important part in its marine strategy and national development (Minamikawa, 2017), and explore the way to face the challenge of the marine environment during its rapid industrialization and economic development.
Marine environmental pressures is growing during its rapid industrialization, the GDP-oriented economic growth model should be shifted to a sustainable development model. The research finds the industrial structure can effect on the pollution of the marine environment. With the economic growth, through increase environmental protection investment, technology application and enhanced management can improve the ability of reduce the marine environment pollution step by step (Chen, 2016).
To improve of China's marine environment, the marine environmental policies should be enhanced, especial in marine environment management mechanisms, relevant laws and regulations implementation process (Kawashima, 1994). It is important to establish and improve the monitoring mechanisms of the marine environment. In addition to the central government's leading role, local governments and private institutions at all levels also should take the responsibilities and play the key role. The marine environmental policy must have a clear implementation body after its formulation, give full play to the judicial organs, social organizations and the public to implement the ocean. Insist on the principle of “environmental priority” in dealing with the relationship between economic development and marine environmental management, rather than the understanding and treatment mechanism of “coordinated development of environment and economy”. The management system and standards should be more comprehensive and detailed with operability. The legal and technical standards system for the protection of terrestrial water quality, the protection of drinking water should be prominent and promoted through separate legislation and standards.
The relationship between economic growth and marine environment pollution is much complex. China's coastal areas are a vast area with disparities, such as different stages of industrial development and economic level, which require the researches on coastal environment employed different indicators under different analysis mechanism. There are couple of key questions of researches on the relationship between economic growth and marine environment in China, such as the responsibility of case study and indicators, and international comparing and experience, etc. All these issues have to be kept up to date on China’s economic development and the latest developments in the marine environment.
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