Aims: The Yellow Sea Ecoregion is one of 43 marine ecoregions and is considered a global conservation priority as identified by World Wide Fund for Nature. The Yellow Sea Ecoregion comprises 460,000 km2, has a mean water depth of 46 m, and contains abundant biodiversity and biological resources. Due to intensified anthropogenic activities and global climate change, the Yellow Sea Ecoregion is facing severe transboundary threats, which have had strong negative impacts on important habitats and key species of the region. To address this issue, the World Wide Fund for Nature organized Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scientists to prepare an assessment report on the status of biodiversity in the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, in which 23 potential priority areas were identified to promote conservation of the region. Until 2019, China had established 152 marine protected areas covering an area of 80,400 km2 in the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, which aim to protect marine ecosystems and biodiversity. However, several issues with China’s management and construction of the marine protected areas, such as a lack of top-level design, limited management capacity, a lack of financial funding, and poorly balanced spatial development, leave many conservation gaps to be filled to ensure protected areas operate effectively. Therefore, it is of vital importance to improve the designation, management and development of marine protected areas within the Yellow Sea Ecoregion.
Methods: In this paper, the research area was the portion of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion identified by World Wide Fund for Nature under China’s jurisdiction. We used a gap analysis to identify important yet unprotected coastal wetland, key marine species, and marine ecosystems of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion. We first identified the important ecological function zones, areas rich in biodiversity, important habitats, and landscape geological relics and mapped their distribution as potential priority areas. Next, we collected information on the distribution of existing marine protected areas. We then used ArcGIS 10.4 to compare the distributions of our identified potential priority areas with the distributions of existing marine protected areas to identify conservation gaps, and proposed new marine protected areas based on the identified gap patches.
Results: Based on our analysis, the key conservation gaps of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion were located in the Yellow River estuary; the coastal wetlands in the Liaohe Estuary, Huanghua and Tanggu, the Jiaodong Peninsula, and Jiangsu Province; the Caofeidian seagrass bed; the Zhoushan fishing ground; and the breeding area and migratory route of spotted seal. The Daliao River Estuary and the southern part of Liaohe Estuary wetlands in Yingkou, the Caofeidian seagrass bed, the wetland along the east coast of Huanghua, the Tiaozini wetland, the Yuhe Estuary, and the Weihe Estuary wetland were the relatively larger gap patches. Spotted seal (Phoca largha), Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), East Asian Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis sunameri) and Common Minke Whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) were key species of concern.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that new marine protected areas for Spotted Seal and Spoon-billed Sandpiper be established near Dalian along Jiangsu coast. At the same time, a lack of accurate distribution data hinders understanding the protection needs of East Asian Finless Porpoises and Common Minke Whales. To enhance our understanding of their distributions, further research and surveys of East Asian Finless Porpoises and Common Minke Whales are needed to inform the establishment of suitable protected areas and bolster the effectiveness of the marine protected network. We recommend that strengthening the scientific designation and management of marine protected areas, actively integrating resources from all sectors of society to conduct research and assessment, guaranteeing funding sources, promoting sustainable development of marine ecological industry, enhancing capacity building and the degree of stakeholder participation, and applying more creative cooperation approaches are fundamental to ensuring the success of future designation, management, and development of marine protected areas in the Yellow Sea Ecoregion.