Friday, December 23, 2016

Islands of Mass Destruction

On a map of the world, the South China Sea appears as a scrap of blue amid the tangle of islands and peninsulas that make up Southeast Asia between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Its 1.4 million-square-mile expanse, so modest next to its aquatic neighbors, is nonetheless economically vital to the countries that border it and to the rest of us: More than $5 trillion in goods are shipped through it every year, and its waters produce roughly 12 percent of the world’s fish catch.

Zoom in, and irregular specks skitter between the Philippines and Vietnam. These are the Spratly Islands, a series of reefs and shoals that hardly deserved the name “islands” until recently. In the past three years, China, more than 500 miles from the closest of the Spratly reefs, has transformed seven of them into artificial land masses; as it’s reshaped coral and water into runways, hangars sized for military jets, lighthouses, running tracks, and basketball courts, its claim to sovereignty over the watery domain has hardened into an unsubtle threat of armed force.

Mobile signal towers on the newly cemented islands now beam the message, in Chinese and English, “Welcome to China” to cell phones on any ships passing within reach. But its latest moves, in the long-running dispute with its neighbors over the sea, the fish in it, and the oil beneath it, are anything but welcoming: China appears to have deployed weapons systems on all seven islands, and last week seized a U.S. Navy underwater drone.

In the run-up to all this, as most international observers watched the islands bloom in time-lapse on satellite photos, John McManus arrived with a film crew in February 2016, to document a less visible crisis under the water. To McManus, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami, the Spratlys aren’t just tiny chips out of a blue background on Google Maps; from dives there in the early 1990s, he remembers seeing schools of hammerhead sharks so dense they eclipsed the light. This time, he swam through miles of deserted dead coral—of the few fish he saw, the largest barely reached 4 inches.

“I’ve never seen a reef where you could swim for a kilometer without seeing a single fish,” he says. (...)

The first signs of what was to come appeared in late 2012. Satellite photos of reefs in the Spratlys showed mysterious arcs, like puffs of cartoon smoke, obscuring the darker areas of coral and rock. A colleague forwarded them to McManus, wondering if the shapes might be signs of muro-ami fishing, where fishermen pound large rocks into a reef, tearing up the coral to scare their prey out of hiding and up into a net above. Another theory, floated first in an article on the Asia Pacific Defense Forum, a military affairs website, explained the arcs as scars left by fishermen harvesting giant clams.

Giant clams are an important species in the rich reef systems of the Indo-Pacific waters; they anchor seaweed and sponges, shelter young fish, and help accumulate the calcium deposits that grow reefs over time. Underwater, the elegantly undulating shells part to reveal a mantle of flesh in rainbow hues: blue, turquoise, yellow, and orange—mottled and spotted with yet more colors. The largest can reach almost 5 feet across and weigh more than 600 pounds. Long hunted for their meat, they’re also prized in the aquarium market, though they’re protected by international law.

McManus found both theories implausible, particularly the giant clam one; the only method he’d ever heard of for fishing the hefty bivalves involved wrestling them by hand into the boat.

As McManus pondered this mystery, tensions in the South China Sea were flaring, with the Chinese fishermen of Tanmen as the tinder. Tanmen is a pinhead of a place on the coast of Hainan Island, China’s equivalent of Hawaii. Temperatures rarely drop below 60F, and blue skies contrast with the smoggy haze over much of the mainland. Tanmen was a subsistence fishing village until Hainan opened up to foreign investment and a Taiwanese entrepreneur arrived in 1990.

The man, Zhan Dexiong, had run a business for years in Southeast Asia turning seashells into beads and handicrafts. Tanmen had a dozen small boats and no electricity, according to Zhan’s son, Zhan Yulong. It did have a cheap and abundant supply of all kinds of seashells, which the locals discarded after taking the meat out. The elder Zhan bought generators, moved machines from his factory in the Philippines, and set up the first foreign venture in town.

By the early 2000s, the success of that first factory had attracted copycats and spurred the creation of a special industrial zone devoted to shell processing. Over the next decade, Chinese consumers, avid buyers of jade and ivory, developed a taste for objets from those factories, intricate sculptures with giant clamshells as the medium. Although China listed giant clams as a protected species, Tanmen fishermen found a loophole, going after the large shells of long dead clams, buried within reefs. By 2012 the shells from giant clams, dead or alive, had become the most valuable harvest for the vessels sailing from Tanmen into the South China Sea. Boats regularly came home with 200-ton hauls, which could sell for 2,000 yuan ($290) a ton—big money in a place where the annual income for a fisherman was 6,000 yuan.

by Dune Lawrence and Wenxin Fan, Bloomberg | Read more:
Image:Howard Chew/Alamy