My Brush with the Giant Clam “War” in the South China Sea – IPP-REVIEW

“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

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.

About The Author

Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.


« »