The serene beauty of Yubudo, a small island off the west coast of South Korea, conceals a silent crisis that echoes through the sandy tidal flats. As Byeongwoo Lee, a birding guide, softly treads across this delicate ecosystem, the whispers of tens of thousands of shorebirds become audible, emphasizing the critical role these tidal flats play in the migratory journeys of millions. This blog dives deep into the perilous state of South Korea’s tidal flats, exploring their historical significance, their environmental prowess, the threats they face, and the burgeoning efforts to save them.

The Heart of Migration

Korea’s Yellow Sea tidal flats, exemplified by Yubudo Island, serve as a vital rest stop for 50 million shorebirds on an 18,000-mile migration route. The once-abundant tidal flats, rich in crabs, clams, and sea worms, offer essential sustenance and shelter to these migratory wonders. However, despite their pivotal role in sustaining diverse ecosystems, these tidal flats are under severe threat of disappearance due to human activities.

Environmental Powerhouse

Tidal flats are not just a haven for migratory birds; they are environmental powerhouses. The intricate dance between the tide and coastal communities in South Korea has shaped a unique culture, local cuisines, and a fishing economy worth over $330 million annually. Beyond their cultural significance, South Korean tidal flats are emerging as unsung heroes in the fight against climate change.

Scientists from South Korean universities collaborate with the government to study the remarkable ability of tidal flats to purify water, shield coastal communities from storms, and combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. The dense mud of Korean tidal flats, boasting over 80 feet in depth, hosts tiny benthic diatoms that bury substantial amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to the absorption of 260,000 tons annually – equivalent to removing 110,000 cars from the road each year.

In the Crosshairs of Development

However, the very survival of these vital ecosystems is at stake. In the last 70 years, South Korea has witnessed the disappearance of two-thirds of its tidal flats due to land reclamation, one of the most significant threats among others like sea-level rise and pollution. The Saemangeum reclamation project, a colossal 100,000-acre endeavor seven times the size of Manhattan, stands as a symbol of unchecked development.

Completed in 2006, the Saemangeum seawall, the world’s longest, severed the tidal flat’s connection to the tide, resulting in the death of millions of shellfish and the disappearance of tens of thousands of migratory birds. The impact extends beyond wildlife, affecting local fishing industries and the livelihoods of thousands. Promised jobs and development have fallen short, leaving vast reclaimed areas undeveloped.

Conservation in Action

The catastrophic consequences of Saemangeum spurred a new era of conservation in South Korea. In 2008, the government banned new large-scale reclamation projects, though existing projects like Saemangeum continue. In 2019, the net gain from tidal flat restoration finally surpassed the loss. Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve, spared from development in the ’90s, serves as a beacon of hope. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2021, it showcases the potential of conservation and ecotourism, drawing over six million visitors annually.

A Blueprint for Conservation

One of the best places to witness the benefits of conservation is South Korea’s Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve, nestled on the peninsula’s southern edge. This wetland escaped the threat of development in the ‘90s when residents and activists successfully protested the government’s plan to mine the land. Today, it stands as the country’s first internationally protected coastal wetland.

The success of Suncheon Bay is not just about preserving tidal flats; it’s a comprehensive approach to restoration. With municipal and national funds, the Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve acquired nearby farmland by the coast, restoring the connection with the sea. This holistic approach includes organic rice farming to reduce pollution from runoff and educational initiatives for ecotourists, residents, and local school children.

Sunmi Hwang, a conservationist with the wetland reserve, emphasizes, “Our focus is on letting the tide flow again, like it always did. And then nature heals itself.” This philosophy has turned Suncheon Bay into a model for tidal flat conservation worldwide.

A Cautionary Tale

In stark contrast stands Saemangeum, a name now synonymous with ecological collapse. The 100,000-acre reclamation project, accompanied by the world’s longest seawall, was initially envisioned as a vast agricultural area for rice cultivation. As economic priorities shifted, promises of an industrial corridor followed.

However, the 21-mile-long Saemangeum seawall, completed in 2006 amidst lawsuits and protests, severed the ecosystem from the tide. The consequences were devastating. Tens of thousands of migratory birds disappeared, and around 90,000 great knot birds, now endangered, faced a 24 percent population decline.

It wasn’t just wildlife that suffered. The thriving clam industry supporting 20,000 people vanished. Saemangeum developers, despite promises to the community, completed less than half of the reclamation. Plans for an airport over the last remaining tidal flat, Sura, have sparked activism and legal battles. Activists argue that Sura still provides habitat for endangered species like black-faced spoonbills and Far Eastern curlews.

Dongpil Oh, an activist and leader of the Saemangeum Citizen Ecological Investigation Team, reflects on the transformation, saying, “It’s painful to remember how much it’s changed. Sometimes you forget how beautiful it was in the past because your eyes adjust to what it looks like now.”

A Call to Action

The narrative of South Korea’s tidal flats is a tale of environmental resilience, cultural significance, and human-induced peril. As the world grapples with climate change, recognizing the value of these tidal flats becomes imperative. Governments and conservation groups must acknowledge the ecological importance of these areas, implement policies to protect them, and learn from successful models like the Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve. It’s time to heed the silent calls of the tidal flats, preserving these sanctuaries for migratory birds, safeguarding ecosystems, and securing a sustainable future.


In conclusion, the plight of South Korea’s tidal flats underscores the delicate balance between human development and environmental conservation. The story of Saemangeum serves as a cautionary tale, illustrating the irreversible damage caused by unchecked reclamation projects. On the other hand, Suncheon Bay stands as a testament to the positive impact of conservation efforts when communities, activists, and governments collaborate.

The tidal flats are not just a local concern; they are a global treasure with the power to combat climate change and sustain biodiversity. As we stand at the crossroads of development and conservation, the choice is clear – to prioritize the preservation of these invaluable ecosystems. It’s a call to action, urging individuals, communities, and nations to join hands in safeguarding the tidal flats, ensuring that the whispers of migratory birds continue to resonate through the sands of Yubudo and beyond.