My Brush with the Giant Clam “War” in the South China Sea
Giant clam shells are unloaded from a boat in Tanmen, Hainan. (Photo: Chen Xuelun/IC)
By Mark J. Valencia

My Brush with the Giant Clam “War” in the South China Sea

May. 07, 2019  |     |  0 comments

“I am not going down in history as a clam defender, okay?... No one goes to war for clams…” declared Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

I first became aware of the existence of giant clams (Tridacna) as a youngster growing up in New England. I watched a black and white TV show that depicted, with ever quickening screechy background music, a diver writhing in agony because a giant clam had slammed shut on his foot. I had nightmares about that.

The reality is very different. Indeed, giant clams are not to be feared but instead appreciated for their beauty and contribution to the reef ecosystem. I know this because originally an oceanographer I have observed many live giant clams in their natural splendor on dives among coral reefs in the South Pacific and Asia. Their open-jawed display is mesmerizing. Iridescent blue spots dot their flowing symmetrical folds of white and back muscle, with a fluctuating large black hole — the siphon, off to one side. I would just hover drinking it all in. I even touched its live flesh to see what would happen and its slow reaction was decidedly non-threatening.

I have also witnessed their harvest for food — to the extent that over time they have become quite uncommon in easily accessible areas. Some 45 years ago, I visited the then just declared first ocean sanctuary in the Philippines, the Sumilon Island. I was being shown the “living park” by its proud “father” Angel Alcala. The idea that he was trying to put into action was that local fishermen could be convinced to protect an area if they understood that it served as a breeding and nursery ground for fisheries populations adjacent to it and thus would sustain their harvest indefinitely. As our small motor boat entered the shallow “protected” area, we saw two fishermen, one standing in chest deep water and the other reaching out from a small outrigger, loading a giant clam into their boat. I glanced at Angel — and with successive looks of surprise, then disgust and finally resignation — as he observed wryly: “Well, some have not yet fully accepted the idea”. This was an understatement regarding the human difficulty of avoiding the tragedy of the commons. That is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource. At this time the giant clam was mostly harvested for food.

That was then. But now it is a very different story. The major commercialization of the mollusk began about 25 years ago when an entrepreneur from Taiwan showed local Chinese artisans in Hainan how to use it to carve intricate cultural scenes. In the last ten years or so, the giant clam carving industry has exploded. This is due to a combination of the world-wide ban on ivory which is their usual medium, improved carving tools and techniques, increasing domestic tourism in China and the growth of e-commerce.

This in turn has led to mass commercial harvesting in the Spratlys and presumably elsewhere, not for sustenance but for its ever more valuable shell (now known as “the jade of the sea”). Its meat, long regarded in China as an aphrodisiac and more recently a delicacy in France and Japan, has become secondary or is even discarded.

In the early 2000s, when I accepted an invitation to speak at one of the very first of what has since become a very prestigious annual event, The Boao Forum for Asia — I had no idea I might wind up playing a minor role in what became the great giant clam controversy.

I was always adventurous and unlike other participants staying in the far out of town conference venue, I wanted to see the nearby village called Tanmen. My hosts reluctantly agreed, although they could not understand why I wanted to leave the comfortable confines of the air-conditioned hotel to walk in the heat and humidity of the dusty pot-holed streets in a tiny village. They drove me there, let me off, and agreed to pick me up in a couple of hours.  It was indeed a sleepy little fishing village on the “backside of beyond”. For me it was just what I wanted to explore. So I wandered here and there but consistently toward the sea and soon found my way to the docks. I walked up and down checking out the colorful fishing boats tied up in a row bow to stern starboard side against the dock.

Having been an oceanographer — in what now seems another life — I have long had an interest in souvenirs from the sea. I thought that maybe the small open front shops across from the docks might be selling some. So I walked back and forth in front of them in trying to see inside. But it was rather dim inside and the display cases were too far from the store front to get a good look at the wares from outside. I finally ventured into one expecting to cause a bit of a stir at the sight of this non-Chinese speaking guilo. I saw an old lady seated behind one of the glass counters asleep with her arms and head on the counter top. But when I entered, she instantly awoke looking unsurprised. I made hand motions indicating I just wanted to look around. She nodded OK and just sat there.

Tridacna is now supposed to be protected by national Chinese law and in 2016, Tanmen’s government banned the harvest, transport, and sale of giant clams.

There were a few display cases in the middle of the store with rather exquisite and expensive small shell jewelry — none of which appealed to me. But as I surveyed the shelves behind the matron, I spied something I had not seen before — carved giant clam shells. The carvings were quite imaginative and attractive, depicting Chinese cultural scenes from antiquity.

Then I had an epiphany — I connected the carved clams with rumors I had heard of their destructive harvest in the Spratlys. I surreptitiously took several photos of those on display, including the pièce de résistance, a three-foot-wide intricately carved beauty. I repeated this experience in several shops lining the street until I realized that they were all selling carved giant clams.

I sent the photos to a friend in the Philippines, a well known marine biologist. It turned out that these photos and their context supported a theory that he and his colleagues had developed — that there was somewhere a huge market for giant clams far beyond their use as food. Here was possible proof. Of course it needed to be corroborated, and he and his team set out to do so sending field researchers to investigate.

They determined that there was indeed a rapidly expanding market for raw giant clam shells for carving scrimshaw and that a major harvesting ground for these shells was indeed the Spratlys, especially Scarborough Shoal which is apparently in China’s possession but also claimed by the Philippines. As the clams became scarcer and the price rose for this curio — both raw and carved, Chinese fishermen developed increasingly environmentally destructive ways to harvest it including essentially destroying the reef matrix to get at them. Prices for raw giant clams have increased in ten years from about USD 200 to about USD 1800, depending on size, condition and color. Top-of-the-line carvings can now be worth USD 100,000. Tanmen is at the epicenter of this trade with at least 460 shops and 100 workshops.

Although Tridacna is protected by an international treaty, its enforcement focuses on export permits for trade in threatened species. But the market is largely within China. Thus, it is seen by many as mainly a “China problem”. Tridacna is now supposed to be protected by national Chinese law and in 2016, Tanmen’s government banned the harvest, transport, and sale of giant clams. But according to one researcher, “One local trader says that police periodically inspect fishing vessels and seize the clams. But Tanmen’s curio shops selling the clams remain open, and another storeowner says she has no trouble buying raw giant clamshells”.

According to Philippines activist Jay Batongbacal, “The clam digging and the destruction of the coral reef [in the Spratlys] were happening right in full view of the Chinese Coast Guard”. If so, this is contrary to China’s official position. Such activities should be formally documented and reported to the authorities of both countries. According to Chito Sta. Romano, the Philippine ambassador to China, if complainants do that, China will investigate. Locsin has said that the Philippines will take legal action against China’s harvesting of giant clams at Scarborough Shoal.

There is now official agreement among all claimants to the Spratlys that this practice must stop and many countries have made such harvesting illegal. But enforcement is lax due to insufficient capabilities. A more important obstacle is disputes over who has the sovereignty and jurisdiction to do the enforcing. There is great concern by some governments that allowing others to enforce the law in areas they claim will set an adverse legal precedent.  Sometimes in such situations the disputants agree to disagree on the sovereignty and jurisdictional issues but define the areas in dispute, allow fishers from all claimants to fish there and agree to enforce their laws against their own flagged vessels. If one or more countries do not follow through on the enforcement, then they all are right back in the tragedy of the commons.

Even more problematic for this “solution” in the Spratlys, the occupants of disputed features do not “allow” “foreign” fishermen in their claimed 12 nautical mile seas, or what they may claim as such, whether validly or not. However, they generally refrain from doing anything to upset the status quo like arresting foreign violators and many fishers take advantage of that. The alternative of enforcing one’s laws against other’s flagged vessels is risky and could become destabilizing. Because it is an expression of sovereignty, the opposing claimants may well see such an act as belligerent and oppose it, perhaps with force. These obstacles must be recognized and overcome to save — through protection and cooperative restoration efforts — the giant clam population in the Spratlys and elsewhere.