"How important are giant clams to the environment?"
China’s plunder of the Philippine environment continues as they trawl for giant clams in our waters.
ABS-CBN broke the news on April 15 that Chinese vessels were discovered harvesting giant clams from Panatag Shoal.
Philippine waters are part of a large marine area in the western Pacific Ocean called The Coral Triangle. Among the creatures living in this biodiverse environment are giant clams of various species of Tridacna. They are hunted for their meat, which is almost entirely pure protein; and shells, which are used as artificial ivory and for decoration.
Fishermen in the area also reported China Coast Guard speed boats guarding Chinese trawlers drive away Filipino fishing vessels attempting to enter the shoal.
This is not the first time the Chinese have done this, and in the same area. In 2015, during the administration of President Noynoy Aquino, the Department of Foreign Affairs sent a protest note to China after the Philippine Coast Guard reported some 24 Chinese utility boats taking giant clams from Bajo de Masinloc.
The DFA at the time said, “The Philippines strongly protested this destructive and illegal activity. The act of harvesting giant clams, which are among the most endangered marine species, entails the crushing and destruction of surrounding corals which result in the permanent destruction of the reef itself.”
The DFA added, “China’s toleration of, and active support for, the environmentally harmful fishing practices by its nationals at Bajo de Masinloc constitute breaches of its obligations under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.”
How important are giant clams to the environment?
In a January 2015 article for the journal Biological Conservation, researchers Neo, Eckman, et.al. wrote that “Giant clams can contribute to reefs as food, as shelter, and as reef builders and shapers.”
Their tissues are eaten by other marine creatures, and their discharges of feces and other substances are consumed by feeders. The surface of shells of giant clams are homes for epibionts like barnacles, while “commensal and ectoparasatic organisms live within their mantle cavities.” The material of the shells—calcium carbonate—are incorporated into the reef framework. Giant clams also filter seawater and keep it clean by countering eutrophication, which allows algae to breed.
In short, giant clams “residing in the reefs help to maintain and restore the health of the coral reefs ecosystem by increasing the abundance and species richness at the reefs,” explains Nanyang Technological University on their website blog.
Ironically, it was research made in our waters that helped determine the contributions giant clams make to the marine environment.
“One study in the Philippines showed the positive impact of having clams—when T. gigas were introduced onto degraded reefs, fish diversity and abundance improved significantly after just three months, compared with control plots with no clams. The coverage of reef organisms such as ascidians, anemones, soft corals, sponges and zoanthids also grew from 2 percent to 14.8 percent,” wrote Tan Cheng Li for Star2.com.
The populations of giant clams are declining because of climate change, land reclamation and habitat encroachment, and hunting.
According to Tan, “All giant clam species are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), meaning that trade is regulated to avoid threats to their future survival. In the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, four species are listed as “vulnerable” to extinction.”
What would the impact on the environment be if giant clams were to disappear from reefs?
Tan writes further: “Biomass and carbonate production, water filtering, and surface area for epibionts (organisms that live on the surface of another) are all expected to decrease with reduced giant clam abundance, according to the scientists.”
The Chinese have destroyed “over 40,000 acres of reef via clam harvesting,” tweeted Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Gregory Poling. “That's more than 10x as much as their island building killed.”
Poling also said, “They destroy the entire reef, which will cost coastal communities their livelihoods and food security.”
What action is our government taking on this serious matter?
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said, "We just caught them doing that recently, filed a diplomatic note, and will be taking legal action… [the case is] with our legal department now."
According to Palace Spokesman Salvador Panelo, "It is an affront to our territory and our sovereignty… As far as we are concerned, that is ours so we will be objecting to those intrusions."
The DFA and the Palace should be transparent on this and show the public the protest note filed as well as report on what other actions they take. China’s plunder of Philippine resources is unconscionable and must be stopped.
“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when clearly it is Ocean.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke / FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO