Located along the shores of the South China Sea in Hainan province — a southern island sometimes referred to as China’s Hawaii — the coastal town of Tanmen used to be the home of a flourishing trade in giant clam shells. Today, its storefronts mostly stand deserted or empty, casualties of a recent provincial ban on the environmentally destructive industry. But after conversations with merchants based throughout southern China, my colleague and I arrived in town in early January convinced that there was more to the town’s remaining businesses than first meets the eye.
Giant clams are the ocean’s biggest bivalves: The largest ever recorded measured over 1.3 meters long and weighed roughly 250 kilograms. Endemic to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, the interiors of their large, thick carapaces have a translucent sheen reminiscent of white jade. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, they can be carved into anything from wonderfully ornate sculptures worth tens of thousands of yuan to fine bracelets and jewelry. The clams were classified as a protected species in China in the late 1980s, but fishermen found a loophole by claiming to only harvest long-dead clams.
Giant clam shells formed the backbone of Tanmen’s economy for years. At its peak — from 2011 to 2016 — the giant clam industry in Qionghai City, the municipality administratively responsible for Tanmen, was valued at 160 million yuan (roughly $24 million) a year. For decades, the government’s focus was on growing the area’s GDP, not environmental regulations, and local officials and state-run media alike were more than willing to overlook the questionable legal foundation of Tanmen’s economic success.
The boom came crashing to a halt in January 2017, when local authorities abruptly switched course and began implementing long-standing environmental regulations aimed at protecting giant clams and the ecosystems they support. Many stores were forced out of business. But based on accounts from vendors collected between late 2018 and early 2019, Tanmen continues to be a key source of clam shell carvings for merchants across southern China, including neighboring Guangdong province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Workers unload giant clams at a dock in Tanmen, Hainan province, April 24, 2013. Meng Zhongde/VCG
My colleague and I eventually decided to see for ourselves whether the tales had any truth to them. Arriving in Tanmen, we counted over 100 handicrafts stores along the town’s main drag, more than 80 of which were closed. Above the now-shuttered storefronts hung signs advertising sculptures, handicrafts, and shell art, their discolored white backgrounds and peeled lettering testament to the town’s faded fortunes.
Our guide was a Tanmen local. He explained that, for generations, the people of Tanmen had lived off the ocean — often venturing deep into the South China Sea to fish. Starting at a young age, children would join their families on these journeys, quickly becoming competent swimmers and divers. Long before the invention of scuba gear, Tanmen locals were effortlessly diving to depths of 10 meters, where they would scoop giant clams off the seabed.
Prior to the ’80s, the clams were of little commercial value in Tanmen. Fishers would catch them for food, and surplus shells were sometimes used as ornaments or for building materials. But it wasn’t until the ’90s — when a Taiwanese businessman opened the first shell-crafting factory in the area — that the industry really began to take off.
Two decades later, as the market for clam shell products continued to expand, the local authorities threw their support behind the industry as an engine of economic growth. By 2012, the town was home to 70 factories and more than 200 artisans, the more skilled of whom were making over 10,000 yuan a month — more than five times the provincial urban average.
Today, the industry is a sensitive topic, a painful reminder of the town’s former glory. When a local pulled out his phone to show us photos of intricately carved shells from Tanmen’s heyday, another townsperson shot him a meaningful look and changed the topic. The first man quickly put away his phone.
The next morning, my companion and I declined the locals’ offers to guide us and set off on our own to explore the town. The streets were as deserted and silent as they had been the day before, and we wandered until we came to a still-open shop called South of the Sea Handicrafts.
Its entrance was stacked with gourds, and one of the shop employees sat outside in the sun, while another stood by the door, eyeing us as we walked up. It was only after purchasing two gourds that the latter pushed aside a small, hidden door and beckoned us inside. A different world awaited us within. The sheer magnitude and beauty of the wares on display was breathtaking: shimmering coral, carved giant clam shells, and preserved turtle specimens.
What at first glance seemed to be an innocuous gourd shop was in reality a center for a black-market trade in marine life. The employee assured us we could order via social media platform WeChat and have it shipped anywhere in the country. Each handicrafts store we inspected in Tanmen had a similar door: It beggars the imagination to think of the wealth of gleaming shells and lost marine life concealed in these secret rooms.
These riches came at a cost. Driven by the industry’s economic potential and government support, locals eventually abandoned their traditional reliance on diving in favor of harvesting giant clams on a far grander scale. Fishers used iron rakes or propellers to break up the reefs in which the clams lived and sand-blowers to churn up gaping cavities in the waters to expose giant clams buried in the seabed.
The combination of large ships, advanced technology, accurate positioning, and modern fishing methods devastated the South China Sea’s clam population. Catches gradually began to shrink. According to locals, ships that had once harvested 10 tons of clams per voyage were soon lucky to haul in a single ton.
On November 30, 2016, the Hainan provincial government announced a regulatory and legal clampdown on the giant clam trade, effectively banning it province-wide. Vendors were given until January 2017 to sell off their remaining wares.
A mad scramble ensued as residents sought to offload stock before the ban hit. Most families and shops in Tanmen had invested heavily in the industry before the floor fell out. “They were put in a tough position — many people sank thousands, even millions, into the industry when it was flourishing,” one former Hainan-based giant clam shell merchant told us. “They gave up everything they had, just to invest. Then came the ban. They had no time to ship or relocate everything, but these giant clams were their entire family business. They needed some way of making back their losses, so they resorted to selling pieces under the table.”
According to our source, once a seller finds a willing buyer, they make use of backdoor shipping channels — often either waiting for the lulls in between periodic crackdowns or simply paying off those charged with enforcement — to move their wares off the island.
If the hundreds of stores across southern China still advertising giant clams and clam shell-related products from Tanmen — most of them openly and evidently in little fear of the law, which is not always as rigorously enforced elsewhere as it is in Hainan — are any indication, local merchants are adept at finding ways around the ban. If anything, the protected status of giant clams and the ban in Hainan has become a selling point, as the scarcity of giant clam shell ornaments drives up their value.
As a conservationist, I’m pleased that the local authorities finally cracked down on Tanmen’s illegal giant clam shell trade. But abrupt, rigid campaign-style enforcement efforts aren’t always the solution. While it’s important to step up enforcement and eliminate the giant clam trade, its persistence in Tanmen suggests that it’s equally important to work with communities to manage the transition to other sources of development. The local government played an active role in the industry’s rise. Now it, along with research organizations and nongovernmental organizations, must play an active role in what comes next.
In the meantime, Tanmen’s remaining traders will likely continue operating in the shadows, waiting for the winds to change.
Translator: Kathrine Tse, editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Giant clam shell jewlery on display inside a store on Weizhou Island, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 25, 2018. Courtesy of Zhao Xinyi)