Sonneratia apetala Buch. Ham in the mangrove ecosystems of China: An invasive species or restoration species?
By the end of 1990s when China initiated a 10-year mangrove reforestation project, the mangrove forest area had decreased from250,000 to 15,000 ha. Over 80% of current Chinese mangroves are degraded secondary forests or plantations. As an initial restoration and reforestation effort, Sonneratia apetala, a native of India, Bengal and Sri Lanka, was introduced in 1985 to Dong Zhaigang Mangrove Nature Reserve in Hainan Island from Bengal. It has then been introduced into other places since 1991. However, the further use of the species is becoming increasingly controversial as there are emerging signs that it may become invasive in certain locations. A comprehensive evaluation of the species’ condition in China regarding benefits and risks is critically needed. Here, we map the introduction and dispersal routes and monitor the growth of S. apetala in China from 1985 to 2006. S. apetala grows fast and performs well in the introduced 2300 ha muddy beaches area. It greatly improves the soil fertility and shows a suite of suitable characteristics as a pioneer restoration species. Currently, no natural invasion of S. apetala has been observed in the northern mangrove area. However, invasion into natural forests does occur in southerly locations such as Shenzhen, Zhanjiang and Dong Zhaigang. In these locations, S. apetala exhibits invasive characteristics such as overgrowth and high spreading ability that evidently affects local mangrove ecosystem structure and function. While the species clearly offers some benefits at some locations where it cannot naturally invade, it appears harmful to other native mangrove species, posing amajor practical problem to both ecologists and land managers. This situation will be similar to previously imported non-native and invasive intertidal wetland species, Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), with similar results and problems.