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April 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The War on Giant Clams

from the April, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While China has a poor conservation reputation -- shark finning just one example --- the USA and China have recently agreed to clamp down on the trade in ivory. However, another species is threatened. Giant clamshells made of calcium carbonate and streaked with green or gold, weighing up to 450 pounds each, have become a new quarry for fishermen on the southern island of Hainan and elsewhere. Although the provincial government banned the harvesting of giant clams last year, smugglers still get them over the border, even carved into shapes like bracelets, soap dishes and bookends, so liked by the Chinese.

Hainan's fishing fleets are intentionally destroying the coral reefs around the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea, to harvest this 'jade of the sea' which fetches huge sums of money.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, of BBC News, reports that this reef destruction has been going on by Chinese poachers in Philippine waters for more than two years. Using the long-shaft propellers of small annex boats to break the corals, divers rip the giant clams from among the resulting debris and transfer them to larger mother ships. The clamshells can be as much as 100 years old and fetch between $1000 and $2000 a pair when cleaned, or even much more.

When he asked a Philippine Marine Corps officer why the poachers were not chased off, he was told it was too dangerous. "We don't want to start a shooting war with the Chinese Navy."

Wingfield-Hayes says he finds it hard to understand why Chinese fishermen, who have a long tradition of fishing reefs are now destroying them. "Greed may be one answer. In newly wealthy China, there is far more money to be made from looting and trading in endangered species than in catching fish."

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