March 30 (UPI) -- China's reclamation and military buildup on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is doing lasting damage to the ecosystem, and coral reef cover has declined by more than half as a result of activities.
According to Greg Asner, an ecologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science, research shows reef harboring military bases were destroyed as atolls were dredged and converted.
"We compared the proportion of coral reef on occupied atolls to unoccupied ones, and our research, published this month, found up to a 70 percent reduction in reef cover on those harboring military bases," Asner writes.
There are now 15 military bases in the island chain and their presence is posing a threat to the atolls and reefs in the sea that support 600 coral species and 6,000 types of fish, according to the U.S. scientist.
Asner also said China has been doing the most damage.
Other island claimants, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, have taken turns dredging about 100 acres over four decades, but Beijing has reclaimed 3,000 acres since 2014.
Asner said he and his colleague conducted underwater surveys and satellite imagery analysis to conclude the activities on the Spratly Islands have done damage, and that "millions of colorful life forms have been wiped off the planet."
China has defended its decision to militarize the islands.
In May 2015, China identified issues including "hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism," as reasons for the buildup.
The activities would "safeguard" Chinese interests, the military has said.
In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping said "an impregnable wall for border and ocean defense" was of the highest priority.