Hunt for Scarborough clams, aka ‘jade of the sea,’ translates to lucrative business

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 18 2019 09:38 AM | Updated as of Apr 18 2019 10:05 AM

MANILA—Shell carvings from clams that Chinese fishers pillage from the South China Sea could fetch as much as P5.5 million, according to a 2016 report. 

The Philippine government will take "legal action" over China's extraction of clams off Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the country's exclusive economic zone, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said earlier this week. 

The translucent white shells of giant clams, often dubbed as the "jade of the sea", have emerged as an alternative to ivory from elephant tusks, which are banned in China, according to a 3-year-old article by Christina Larson on Science magazine. 

"Huge demand" for shell carvings has pushed prices up to around $3,000 or P155,000 to around $12,000 (P621,000), trade expert Zhang Hongzhou was quoted as saying in the article. 

Especially large and fine carvings can fetch up to $106,000 (P5.5 million), added the expert from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Fishers in Hainan, a province on China's southern tip, have for centuries harvested clams for meat, which is considered an aphrodisiac in the country, said Zhang. 

Trade in shells only began some 20 years ago when a Taiwanese entrepreneur showed locals how to carve intricate designs, but the industry boomed a few years ago following improved techniques, a slump in ivory sources, and Hainan's popularity as a tourist spot, Zhang said. 

Tanmen, once a sleepy fishing village in Hainan, has become the center of the shell trade, boasting of about 100 workshops that support about some 100,000 people, the expert said. 

"As stocks dwindle, Chinese fishers are ranging more widely into disputed waters," wrote Larson. 

Ed Gomez, a marine biologist at the University of the Philippines-Manila, was quoted as saying in the article that Chinese fishers as early as 2016 were "loading up huge cargo boats chockfull of giant clam shells." 

Clams, which may live for up to 80 years, serve as food for predators such as eel and starfish; shelter for fish and shrimp; and reservoir for a specialized microalgae that help glean energy from photosynthesis, Larson wrote. 

Giant clams, she said, are "especially vulnerable to depletion because the hermaphroditic creatures are slow to mature and reproduce." 

To harvest clams, one needs to pulverize surrounding corals that provide habitat for fish, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. 

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Filipino fishermen recently told ABS-CBN News that Chinese Coast Guard ships drove them away from the shoal as wooden ships that bore China's flag harvested giant clams.

A United Nations-backed court in 2016 junked Beijing's "historic rights" to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea. However, the tribunal has no enforcement mechanism and China has refused to recognize the ruling. 

The military last March also expressed concern over hundreds of Chinese militia vessels near an island occupied by Manila in another part of the waterway. 

Both Chinese and Filipino fishermen are present in the contested waters, said Zhao Jianhua, China's ambassador to the Philippines. He denied media reports that Chinese fishermen were carrying firearms. 
 
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the same month assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea, through which some $3.4 trillion of goods pass through yearly. 

—With a report from Reuters