South China Sea reefs 'decimated' as giant clams harvested in bulk

Mon Jun 27, 2016 7:28pm EDT
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By Farah Master

TANMEN, China (Reuters) - Ornaments made from the shells of endangered giant clams, renowned in China for having auspicious powers and the luster of ivory, have become coveted luxuries, a trend which has wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of the South China Sea.

China banned harvesting of giant clams last year but in the tiny seaside town Tanmen on the southern island of Hainan, most stores still sell products made from the over four-foot-wide shells.

The once sleepy fishing village has transformed over the past three years to harvest clams on an industrial scale. There are around 460 handicraft retailers, compared to 15 in 2012, with the industry now supporting around 100,000 people.

The price of giant clams has risen 40-fold over the past five years, while the plundering of the seabed has led to severe degradation of the reefs, scientists and academics said.

"With rising tensions in the South China Sea, Tanmen fishermen's important role in strengthening China's claims in the disputed waters and supporting the People's Liberation Army navy are recognized by the Chinese government," said Zhang Hongzhou, an associate research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

"As a result, authorities have turned a blind eye."

China claims almost the whole South China Sea, setting it at odds with rival claims from its Southeast Asian neighbors, including the Philippines. The region accounts for more than a tenth of global fisheries production.

The Qionghai government, which looks after Tanmen, announced in March 2015 that it would strictly enforce the ban on digging, carrying and selling of endangered marine species including the giant clams.   Continued...

Products made from giant clam shells are displayed inside a store in the seaside town of Tanmen in China's Hainan province May 10, 2016. Picture taken May 10, 2016. REUTERS/Farah Master