Ecological Hooliganism: smashing the coral triangle

Giant clams are one of Buddhism’s “seven treasures”, along with gold and lapis lazuli. China’s new rich prize their shells as showy ornaments. Each can fetch as much as $3,000, so each haul was worth a fortune to the fishermen of Tanmen, a little fishing port on the island province of Hainan in Southern China.  But Chinese government banned the clam fishing…
The ban is surely welcome. [S]ome of the most biodiverse coral reefs on Earth have been destroyed in the South China Sea thanks to giant-clam poachers. In the shallow waters of the reefs, crews use the propellers of small boats launched from each mother-ship to smash the surrounding coral and thus free the clams anchored fast to the reef. Though the practice has received little attention, it is ecological hooliganism, and most of it has been perpetrated by boats from Tanmen.

The fishermen have not been the reefs’ only adversaries. China’s huge and (to its neighbours) controversial programme since late 2013 of building artificial islands around disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea has paved over another 22 square miles of coral. When the two activities are taken together, Mr McManus says, about 10% of the reefs in the vast Spratly archipelago to the south of Hainan, and 8% of those in the Paracel islands, between Hainan and Vietnam, have been destroyed. Given that Asia’s Coral Triangle, of which the South China Sea forms the apex, is a single, interconnected ecosystem, the repercussions of these activities, environmentalists say, will be huge…

But still..A few streets back from the waterfront in Tanmen, elegant boutiques sell jewellery and curios fashioned from the giant clams—and clam shells are still stacked outside. And the provincial money that is so clearly being lavished on Tanmen sits oddly with the illegality of its townsfolk’s way of life. .. [I] n 2013 President Xi Jinping himself showed up in Tanmen. Boarding one of the trawlers he declared to the crew, according to state media, “You guys do a great job!” The media did not report that a year earlier the trawler in question had been caught in the territorial waters of Palau, and in the confrontation with local police that followed one of the crew members had been shot dead. In Chinese propaganda, Tanmen’s fishermen are patriots and model workers.

Over the years Tanmen’s fishermen have become part of China’s power projection in the South China Sea, an unofficial but vital adjunct to the Chinese navy and coastguard. The biggest trawlers are organised into a maritime militia ready to fight a “people’s war” at sea. Though generally unarmed, they undergo training and take orders from the navy.

They are facts on the water, and have been involved in China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea. In 2012 boats from Tanmen were part of a navy-led operation to wrest control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, chasing Philippine fishing vessels away. In 2014 they escorted a Chinese oil rig that was being towed provocatively into Vietnamese waters. On land, Vietnamese expressed their rage by ransacking factories they thought were Chinese-owned. At sea, boats from Tanmen rammed and sank one of the rickety Vietnamese vessels coming out to protest.

Mysteriously, though, the giant trawlers of the Tanmen militia are now rafted up, their crews sent home. Perhaps China is keen to lower tensions in the region….A policy introduced in January aims to cut the catch from China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, by a sixth, in the name of sustainability. That will hit Tanmen’s fishermen hard, making them less willing to defend China’s claims. Francis Drake would have understood: pirates are patriotic, but usually only when it pays.

Excerpts from Clamshell Phoneys, Economist, Mar. 25, 2017

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