Greed and politics are destroying some of Asia’s most valuable coral reefs
Feb 13th 2016 Economist
Thegiant clams that lurk in the coral reefs of the South China Sea can live for more than a century and grow more than a metre wide. Their shells are coveted by China’s rich as swanky furnishings or cut into trinkets, such as jewellery. Large specimens can sell for thousands of dollars. The trade is damaging some of the world’s most important ecosystems.
China’s giant-clam industry operates from the port of Tanmen on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. There skippers load rickety wooden fishing vessels with provisions for a month. Barrels of water are lashed down at the stern and pigs led to pens at the bow. On the sidedecks sit crude open boats with single-cylinder engines and long propeller shafts. Once the mother ship reaches distant reefs, these are lowered and the propellers used to chew up submerged coral. When the murk clears divers bring up any giant clams that are revealed. The plunder is illegal in China, and trade in giant-clam shells is banned under international treaties. But in Tanmen it operates in broad daylight.
Recently the fleets have pushed deeper into the South China Sea and into waters claimed by neighbouring countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines. Satellite photos collated by Victor Robert Lee, an analyst, show that tell-tale scarring from clam-harvesting is now visible on more than two dozen reefs.
Enforcement has become laxer since China stepped up its claim to all the islands, reefs and rocky outcrops contained within a “nine-dash line” that encompasses most of the South China Sea. In some places the build-up of Chinese naval and coastguard vessels has made it less likely that clam-harvesters will be chased off by foreigners. Many Chinese feel that fishermen help to project sovereignty, and should be allowed to secure for China a bounty which “poachers” from abroad might otherwise seize. Three years ago President Xi Jinping even visited fishing boats on Tanmen’s quay, though the offending shells were hidden from photographers.
If this were not enough, reefs are also suffering from efforts to build new islands in the sea, mainly but not only by China. Seeking a stable base for runways, weather stations and other installations which might help promote territorial claims, dredgers have been sucking debris from the sea bed and spraying it over reefs which sit just beneath the surface. Such muck-spreading not only kills many square kilometres of coral, but obliterates any chance that it will regrow.
Ecologists fret that the tense security situation prevents them from measuring the extent of the vandalism. Chinese authorities are not entirely deaf to their complaints; since last year they seem to have tightened restrictions on clam-harvesting somewhat (and an anti-corruption drive led by Mr Xi may be lowering demand for the showiest shells). But China’s stance on island-building is uncompromising. In January one Chinese bigwig promised that any damage being done to reefs was “recoverable”. Almost no one outside China agrees.