Overfishing, pollution and unbridled coastal development have destroyed 80 percent of China's coral reefs, says the latest research from Australia.

The first comprehensive survey of the state of corals along mainland China and in the South China Sea paints a grim picture of decline, degradation and destruction resulting from human depredations.

"A wicked problem is one that is very hard to solve without having a whole lot of other foreseen and unforeseen consequences to people, industries and to the environment itself," said Terry Hughes, professor at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the journal Conservation Biology reported.

Hughes co-authored the study with colleague Matthew Young and Hui Huang of the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to an ARC statement.

"China's ongoing economic expansion has exacerbated many wicked environmental problems, including widespread habitat loss due to coastal development, unsustainable levels of fishing, and pollution," Hughes' report stated.

"We found that coral abundance has declined by at least 80 percent over the past 30 years on coastal fringing reefs along the Chinese mainland and adjoining Hainan Island," the report said.

The corals of the South China Sea region cover an area of 30,000 square km, have high conservation values, and support the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishers.

The fact that some reefs are claimed by several different countries makes conservation and management particularly difficult.

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