On a recent humid afternoon in January, Li Shasha stood listlessly behind the counter of her handicraft shop on southern China’s Hainan island. Many of the shelves behind her are bare without the giant ornamental clam shells they once proudly displayed.
“In the past, this would have been peak tourist season,” Li says, surveying her customerless store. Wearing a grey V-neck shirt and a finger-shaped giant clam necklace dangling around her neck, Li remembers the most expensive item she ever sold: an ornament carved from a rare red giant clam that fetched more than 100,000 yuan (around $14,600). These days, she’s lucky to take in a few hundred yuan from her daily sales — barely enough to pay the shop’s monthly rent of 10,000 yuan, let alone make a living.
Coming into effect in January, a new law aimed at protecting the giant clams and their habitat has outlawed harvesting, carving, and selling clam shells, dealing a blow to Li and many others like her in the port town of Tanmen who had until recently earned lucrative incomes from the shells.
The fruits of this windfall are still apparent in the town’s streets: Slick Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars are parked under coconut trees, and people wearing traditional bamboo hats coast along the pristine streets on new motorbikes. The port town has a nautical, almost Disney-like feel to it, with ship wheels, life buoys, and lighthouses adorning supermarkets, pharmacies, government buildings, and even street lights.
Giant clams have long been venerated in China, especially by followers of Buddhism, who count the shell material among the so-called seven treasures, along with gold and silver. Carvings or prayer beads made from the shells are sought by the devout and regarded as auspicious by many Chinese.
The bulky bivalves — the largest of which can measure 1.2 meters long and weigh up to 200 kilograms — are mainly found in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, including the South China Sea, on the shores of which lie Tanmen and Li’s shop. Fishermen use propellers to blow away the sea floor in search of clams buried in the sand, which environmentalists say has damaged large sections of coral reef.
But Tanmen’s giant clam story has another wrinkle. Fishermen from the town often venture close to islands and atolls, like Scarborough Shoal, that are claimed by China and neighboring countries. Known in Chinese as Huangyan Island, the shoal was at the center of a 2012 standoff between China and the Philippines, both of whom regard it as their sovereign territory.
Giant clam shells are unloaded from a boat in Tanmen, Hainan province, April 24, 2013. Chen Xuelun/IC
In a way, the geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea were a key factor behind Tanmen’s giant clam boom. Greater attention to the region by China’s government —at Tanmen’s harbor, a giant photo of a smiling Xi Jinping surrounded by dozens of fishermen reminds tourists of his 2013 visit — led to media coverage and generous government subsidies for building fishing fleets. Some 21 large fishing boats have been manufactured or renovated in recent years to sail farther from shore, and for longer journeys. The results were more tourists, bigger giant clam harvests, and off-the-charts profits.
Arguably, it was the combination of closer scrutiny of territorial claims and heightened awareness from environmental groups that eventually brought the giant clam industry to an end. Thousands of Tanmen residents relied on the giant clam business, which made many of them rich. Now, however, they are forced to look for new sources of income. The rise and fall of the industry in the town has been meteoric, and it tells a tale of how rapidly fortunes can be made and lost in China.
Decades ago, fishermen captured giant clams for their meat, dumping the shells into the sea afterward. In the 1990s, when there were only two or three ships that specialized in clam harvesting, the first giant clam processing companies appeared in town, mainly specializing in Buddhist beads.
Around 2005, craftsmen from other provinces landed in Tanmen and started to shape the shells more delicately, creating greater variety and value. But it was only when the South China Sea re-emerged as an international hot topic in 2012 that the town and its clams were thrust into the spotlight.
In the first six months of 2014 — the peak of the boom — about three-quarters of Tanmen’s 5,000 or so fishermen plied the waters off the coast in search of giant clams, according to 49-year-old Ding Zhile, a weather-beaten former fisherman and head of the town’s fisheries association.
Men unload giant clam shells at a dock in Tanmen, Hainan province, April 24, 2013. Chen Xuelun/IC
“At least 100 families have earned more than 10 million yuan,” Ding told Sixth Tone. Official data appears to back up his claims: By the end of 2013, the average income of a shell craft shop had hit 100,000 yuan per month — around 20 times greater than before the boom.
Despite a population of just 31,000, Tanmen until recently had about 150 processing workshops supplying some 900 craft shops with giant clam products. Sales of the products totaled around 3 billion yuan in 2016, according to Cao Yeke, director of the giant clam association of Hainan province.
Driving this amassing of wealth were sharp increases in the price of giant clam shells. The average price of a meter-wide shell, for example, jumped to as much as 80,000 yuan, compared with just 3,000 a few years ago. At one point in 2014, a single shell carving sold for 700,000 yuan at an auction in Tanmen.
The rapid increase in popularity and value of the massive mollusks still confounds some locals. For years, many used to pile them up to strengthen the mud walls around their houses, or grind them up to use in construction. Others used the shells as fruit trays, keeping colorful ones for interior decoration.
“When I was little, a lot of families used large clam shells as troughs for feeding pigs, as they are heavy enough for the pigs to rummage around in with their noses,” a young handicraft shopkeeper told Sixth Tone. A champagne-colored clam shell roughly 30 centimeters long sits on a table in her shop, stuffed with wadded tissues and a crumpled cigarette pack.
Li, 31, is originally from Henan province in central China. She got her first whiff of the giant clam boom in Tanmen three years ago, when she was working in the pearl business in Sanya, a nearby tourist hub. Li would purchase clam ornaments from Tanmen and bring them with her to Sanya. When she saw how well they sold, she decided to move to Tanmen in the spring of 2015 to open her own shop there, selling mainly to middle-aged or elderly visitors from northern China.
But as the giant clam industry flourished, scrutiny from environmental and international organizations rose, too. As their boats and profits grew, fishermen ventured father out to sea and looked for more efficient ways to harvest the clams, damaging fragile underwater ecosystems in the process.
An artisan carves a design on a giant clam shell in Tanmen, Hainan province, Aug. 9, 2015. Meng Zhongde/IC
John McManus, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami, calculated that Chinese fishermen are responsible for damaging 69 square kilometers of reefs near the Nansha — or Spratly — Islands as a result of clam harvesting. In July 2016, these and other findings from McManus were cited by an international tribunal in The Hague when it ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case of disputed territories in the South China Sea. China at the time called the ruling “nonbinding” and “null and void.”
Lin Yongxin, a researcher from the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, believes harvesting has damaged the ecosystem but also suspects that warmer sea waters due to climate change and an exceptionally strong El Niño in recent years have played larger roles in damaging the coral. The fisherman Ding, meanwhile, acknowledges that harvesting could potentially damage the small coral growing in the sand where the clams lie, though he questions the extent to which this has actually happened.
Technically speaking, the giant clams have been protected by Chinese law since 1988. But in reality, fishermen exploit a loophole by seeking out long-dead clams, as shells that have been hardened from spending years buried in the seabed are more suitable for processing.
But more recent policies aimed at safeguarding the giant clams — both living and dead — have given environmentalists the upper hand. In early 2015, the Policy Research Office of Hainan published a report pointing to the “speculative mentality” of players in the giant clam industry. The report urged the island’s local governments to step up efforts to protect aquatic ecosystems and giant clam populations.
In March of the same year, the local government in Tanmen issued an official notice banning the illegal harvest, transport, and sale of giant clams. Since then, the harvesting has stopped, Ding says, although authorities seem to be turning a blind eye to the processing and sale of already-harvested clam shells. The shop owner Li says that while the sale of whole clams had been prohibited, carved, processed products could still be sold.
But the era of big clams and their even bigger profits has come to an end. These days, most of the craft shops that occupy the town’s main street have shut down. Red “clearance sale” posters remind visitors of the clam shell industry’s last hurrah only weeks before.
Li, for her part, says she’s staying in business, selling pearls, wood carvings, and other handicrafts. But she worries these items won’t be enough to save her business. “Around 80 percent of tourists went straight for the giant clams,” Li says, adding that she is now thinking of going back to Sanya, or even her native Henan. Indeed, most of the 2,500 or so migrant fisherman who came to Tanmen in pursuit of giant clam fortunes have already moved on themselves.
Handicrafts made from giant clam shells are no longer displayed on the shelves of Li Shasha’s shop in Tanmen, Hainan province, Jan. 10, 2017. Lin Qiqing/Sixth Tone
Tanmen government chief Gan Jie told Sixth Tone that the townspeople had been preparing themselves for the boom’s end. He’s banking on a new boat-shaped museum — the National South China Sea Museum — to become a major tourist attraction when it opens in March.
“I think most tourists who visit Hainan island in the future will come here for the museum,” Gan says, though he admitted the local government didn’t take part in its preparation and has little idea of what the exhibition will look like. Gan says the government is taking steps to ensure Tanmen’s economic transformation by developing other kinds of fishing and aquaculture.
But Ding, the veteran fisherman, says this shift won’t be easy, as the South China Sea’s fish reserves are getting lower and lower. In spite of this, he is largely sanguine about the town’s future. “Things will eventually sort themselves out,” he says. “No one predicted the success of giant clams either.”
(Header image: A woman unloads a giant clam shell at a dock in Tanmen, Hainan province, May 15, 2013. Chen Xuelun/IC)