By Roy Mabasa
Chinese clam harvesting fleets have returned to the South China Sea in force over the last six months, destroying vast swaths of coral reef in order to extract the endangered giant clams, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said in a report published on Monday.
The AMTI report said the Chinese fleets, which typically include dozens of small fishing vessels accompanied by a handful of larger “motherships,” are back after a sharp drop in activity from 2016 to late 2018.
The harvested giant shells, it said, are transported back to Hainan, China’s southernmost province, “where they fetch thousands of dollars each in a thriving market for jewelry and statuary.”
It noted that since the latter part of 2018, satellite imagery has shown the Chinese fleets “operating frequently at Scarborough Shoal and throughout the Paracels, including at Bombay Reef.”
Backed with satellite images, the AMTI said in its report that in 2012 to 2015, Chinese clam harvesters severely damaged or destroyed at least 28 reefs across the South China Sea, as documented by Asia-Pacific writer and novelist Victor Robert Lee.
It noted that the typical method employed by the Chinese poachers involved anchoring their boats and then dragging the reinforced props of their outboard motors across the reef surface to break up the coral, allowing the clams to be easily lifted out.
The ecological results were devastating, and, as a result, in July 2016 the arbitral tribunal that ruled on a case brought against Beijing by Manila found that China had violated its obligations under international law to protect the marine environment,” the AMTI said.
Significantly, the Chinese clam boats have likewise returned to Scarborough Shoal, which is a particularly sensitive issue in the Beijing-Manila ties.
Scarborough was already extensively damaged by the earlier phase of Chinese clam harvesting up to 2016.
A December 2018 imagery presented by the AMTI reveals the return of a large number of clam boats in the area.
Although AMTI has not found clear evidence of new clam harvesting in the Spratly Islands, a mothership and a number of small boats were present at nearby Lankiam Cay on April 7 – around the same period that Chinese militia vessels were spotted clustering around Philippine-occupied Loaita Island and Loita Cay.
It added that the mothership was about 20 meters long while those seen at Bombay Reef are typically closer to 30 meters, but the smaller boats are roughly the same dimensions.
Moreover, the AMTI said the new methods being employed to extract clams at Scarborough Shoal suggest that documenting the activities of these Chinese fleets has become more difficult.
“Unlike the prop scarring on shallow reef surfaces, the destruction caused by high-pressure water pumps used in deeper waters is unlikely to be visible in satellite imagery,” it said.
“That suggests that for every clam harvesting operation that is documented in the South China Sea, others will go unnoticed. But with tens of thousands of acres of reef surface already damaged or destroyed and fish stocks teetering on the brink of collapse, the effects of this wanton destruction of the marine environment will be felt across the region,” the AMTI concluded.
Conceived of and designed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, AMTI is an interactive, regularly-updated source for information, analysis, and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia.