What started out as a desire to produce an erratum for an earlier review paper has turned into a monster paper (301 pages)! Throughout the process, I felt like a detective – spending hours mulling over every piece of evidence, and snowballing my clues from paper to paper. I spoke to people via emails, and anyone who would give me an inkling of ‘where can I find giant clams?’ I trawled through thousands of photographs and identified each one of them to species. At the end of my compilation, I needed the other experts to verify my findings and I’m so very thankful for their utmost contribution and commitment. Without my precious collaborators, this work would not have been the most solid foundation for advancing knowledge on the giant clams.
From here on, I hope that our paper will serve its purpose and help many other scientists, managers, and public members to view these amazing animals through my lenses. 😀
Beyond the borders of Hainan Province, authorities on mainland China have intercepted a shipment of giant clam products, reported in September 2017. The brief article pointed out that ‘giant clams listed as a Class I state-protected animal in China’ – also learning that the pandas are listed on this same category! What a vast difference in ‘protection levels’ between them!
My interest in this subject matter began when my colleagues from the Centre for International Law (NUS) invited me to discuss about topographic features of South China Sea (i.e. mapping of reefs). I began to do some research on my own about the shells and industry, with the help of my senior mentors such as Professor Ed Gomez.
There were plenty of information from both the English- and Chinese-based media, and I saw a problem. I realised that the majority of readers have formed a (very) negative image of the Chinese and blamed them for what happened in the South China Sea and the giant clams. Lucky for me, I can read English and Chinese (yes, in Singapore, we learn two languages as kids!), my colleague and I read lengthy forum posts on how there were many Chinese people (and scientists) who were equally outraged by what was done in the South China Sea and the giant clams.
And so, I decided to make my way to see the famous ‘giant clam’ village for myself. This trip would not have been possible if it were not for my gung-ho collaborator and guide. What you will see here on is my photo-essay of the two-day trip in August 2016 to Tanmen Fishing Port on Hainan Island, just a few months before the announcement of the sale ban. [P.S: I did felt like a detective snooping around! 😛 ]
This is my story of the giant clams in the South China Sea…
The weather was dry and warm. Then again, Hainan’s weather does not get very cold even during winter season. My companion and I arrived in Boao (博鳌镇), which is approximately 10 km to our intended destination – Tanmen (谭门镇). I remembered feeling very nervous and jumpy because we met with difficulties in getting transport into the town, and we were constantly being ‘cheated’ of our fares. I remembered also feeling excited at the prospects of what I would see first-hand in this town.
Tanmen fishing port is the largest fishing port on Hainan Island, as rated by China’s National Agriculture Bureau. It is also a distribution centre of marine products in Hainan. As we walked along the pavement next to the mouth of the sea, we saw the fishing boats lining the port – no signs of fishing. I later found out that there is a mandatory annual fishing ban between April/May to October in the South China Sea to allow for recovery of fish stocks. The fishermen would go fishing in the South China Sea, which is a very long way from home. Often, they would have to live on their boat for almost a month long before returning home with their catch.
Flabbergasted is a word that I would not use lightly but it is appropriate for what I am about to describe. We saw streets after streets of shops filled with nothing but handicrafts made of giant clam shells. It was said that the rise of the giant clam handicraft industry also saw the number of retailers increased from 15 in 2012 to a whooping 460 in 2015. By 2015, this industry was supporting nearly 100,000 people, according to estimates.
We popped into a few retailers and began to converse with them about the industry – how and when they had started their businesses, and to hear pride in their voices when talking about these Hainan giant clams. It was like the ‘gold rush’, only that this was a ‘clam rush’. 🙂 As I was browsing their products, I was also admiring the craftsmanship that was put into each item. Many of these products reflect the strong and rich history of Chinese cultures, and are symbols of wealth, health, luck, and prosperity. They are also attractive as display ornaments.
By the fourth retailer, I was already exhausted. The shops began to look very similar to each other. The shops were selling very similar items. My companion and I then wandered off the fancy streets and into the housing areas. There, something caught my eye – the trails of broken white beads. As I followed them like breadcrumbs, they led me to a huge puddle of them laying abandoned. Eventually, we were standing in front of a warehouse that was surrounded by piles of fossilised giant clam shells. They were covered with sheets, seemingly trying to hide from view. We were shortly ‘chased away’ by the foreman…
To have this opportunity to speak and meet the people driving the industry was insightful for me. Admittedly, the methods used to harvest these raw materials was harmful and destructive to the environment in the South China Sea, but the industry became an important element supporting the livelihoods of people living in Tanmen. This is a conservation dilemma…
From a scientific point of view, it was a good opportunity to have been on the ground and surveying the industry. It was exciting to pose as a potential buyer and talk to the locals to find out more about the products and what made them so proud of their giant clams. It was sad to see the vast numbers of giant clam shells on the streets and in the factories. It was interesting to observe these raw materials first-hand and how they were transformed into beautiful pieces of articles.
This is the first part of my insights of the industry. Stay tune for Part 2 of my story that will elaborate why these giant clam shells are significant in the Chinese cultures, the value and quality of giant clam-based products, and interview bits and blobs with the local crafts masters and shop owners.
I get this question a lot! It would rank in my top three FAQ over my not-so-long career, apart from ‘Why giant clams?!’ Well, that’s another story for another day! 😉
Given that SO MUCH has happened for the marine science scene in Singapore over the past two years, I feel it is timely to share our research work as a community, and how we intend to strengthen marine science research in Singapore and the region. But first, watch this video of my colleagues talking about why they chose a marine science career!
Want to know more about the daily musings of marine scientists? Check out the other videos here!
To help our young ones get the necessary training and education, there are a number of scholarships/fellowships (and internships!) that will be made available across various age groups. Here are some listed (accurate as of 17 Nov 2017):
National Research Foundation (Singapore), International Collaborative Fellowship for the Commonwealth (Collaboration with Royal Society UK) [Details here]
For those who are keen to join us on this (arduous) journey of being a marine biologist in Singapore – well, you’re in luck! Through my work, I learnt about the numerous and different local institutions that do marine science work in Singapore. Learn more about them at their home websites. [Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list!]
Advice from one marine biologist to an aspiring marine biologist
Don’t give up easily. This is likely the MOST cliché and overused phrase, but hey! I walked the path, and I’m still on it because I didn’t give up easily. It may sound like a glamorous and amazing job – we had to work hard for everything and at times, bear the harsh forces of weather elements.
I am blessed and fortunate to have achieved much in my career, and while it is decorated with honours and awards, I had my fair share of challenges, insecurity, and self-doubt. The definition of a marine biologist differs among individuals. For me, it was to become a skilled marine biologist, where I had gone through rigorous training of research skills, fieldwork, statistics, a lot of independent learning and thinking, as well as leadership and management. A fellow marine biologist shared her experience here, and tells of how it wasn’t an easy journey for her too.
However, I knew I had to keep trying if I wanted to succeed. I had to keep trying if my experiments failed. I had to keep trying if my proposals failed. I had to keep trying because I wanted to reach my purpose – to protect this fragile marine ecosystem.
Have faith in what you do, and know that whatever you choose to do – you have, at least, taken the first step towards becoming a marine biologist. Good luck!
According to the UN, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year, harming marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems. Almost 80% of all litter in our oceans is made of plastics!
Pieces of plastic in the ocean will soon outnumber fish…
Throwback to TEDxSingapore Salon Event last month at Collision 8! It was their first ever live broadcast via FaceBook Live! In this interview, I shared my first time experience at TED2017, my journey as a TED Fellow, and my work life as a marine biologist. You can catch my interview with Gillian (TEDxSingapore curator) by clicking on the video below! 🙂
I’m a little late in sharing the wonderful news, but I am thoroughly thrilled to be selected as a TED Fellow to take the stage at TED2017 this coming April in Vancouver, BC! Together with myself, there are 14 other aspiring young innovators from four continents, who will also deliver their talks on the TED stage.
I wish to send a big thank you to the TED Team, my colleagues and friends for their heartiest support and well-wishes on my Fellowship. I am highly encouraged to know that I will have the opportunity to present my ideas and work on such a great platform!
News have surfaced from within China that Hainan has now put a widespread ban on the sale of giant clam shells, particularly those found in Tanmen Village. Articles report that as of 1 January 2017, Hainan Island began the ban of sale, purchase, and use of corals, giant clams and other handicraft. (See Chinese article here)
In 2013, the local government (presumably Hainan) strongly supported the trade of giant clam shells, making it a pillar industry in Tanmen Village and provided work for thousands living in the village. However, in 2015, within a short span of 2 years, the support of the industry has turned to prohibition, and finally a total ban. (Translated materials)
On 30 November 2016, the Hainan Provincial Counsel passed the bill of “Hainan’s Coral and Giant Clam Protection Regulations”, which states the ban beginning 1 January 2017. Since the ban, the shops have reportedly removed the items and stopped selling giant clam shell products, whilst others have ‘closed down’. It is estimated that the ban will cause the loss of livelihoods of almost 10,000 people. (Translated materials) Continue reading “Hainan bans the sale of giant clams”→
It is surprising for most people to imagine how giant clams could ‘walk’ around on the reef. When you see a giant clam on coral reefs, you would think that such a large animal like this cannot move very fast on its own. In fact, most people have usually described the adult giant clams as sedentary (or sessile) for the rest of its life!
Visitors often find themselves enthralled by our juvenile giant clams in tanks. As they swipe their hands over a tank, they noticed that the clams will rapidly retract their mantles and shut their shells. A few moments later, they slowly reveal their mantles again.