Giant clams still on sale in South China despite bans


The giant clam is still being traded illegally in Tanmen township, South China’s Hainan Province, even though the nation banned the trade in 2017, reported Saturday.

The Hainan provincial government has implemented a strict program for the protection of giant clams, prohibiting their removal and sale for reasons other than scientific research and other special cases from January 1, 2017, according to Qionghai city’s Ocean and Fishery Department.

The giant clam is the largest ocean bivalve in the world, which has a record size of 1.37 meters, and is known as the “king of the shell”. Because its shell is large and thick, it is often used to make shell carvings, ornaments and other products as a kind of traditional jewelry. They are associated with corals and are found mainly in the South China Sea and tropical ocean. The giant clam is an important part of the marine ecosystem, supporting coral reefs by providing zooxanthella and calcium, and protects the coastline. They also connect the upper and lower parts of the food chain, and maintain ecological balance, Zhao Xinyi, project officer of Guangxi Biodiversity Research and Conservation Association, told

Shells of bear paw clams, which have yellow and purple patches on them, are sold illegally and mixed with various types of seashells in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province in January 2019. Photo: Zhao Xinyi

Underground business

Zhao’s research on marine animal diversity conservation found that giant clam vendors in South China’s Guangdong Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and other places replenished their stock from Tanmen.

There are more than 100 craft shops on the main street of Tanmen, but less than 20 percent are still in business. A local villager introduced by a friend showed Zhao around, from the main street where crafts are sold, to the dock, to the beach at end of the town. The villager said that many of the locals have tried to protect the environment, such as by not throwing waste into the sea, but they never mentioned the giant clams, Zhao told

Zhao and her colleagues decided to explore Tanmen on their own. After she bought two gourds, the salesclerk pushed open a small hidden door and invited them in. Inside the door was another world, Zhao told There were more than eight specimens of small turtles, 20 pieces of coral, 20 pieces of furniture made out of giant clams and a number of jewelry items made of giant clams, tortoise shells and corals, all within a space of about 10 square meters.

The clerk said that the goods could be ordered on the Chinese social media app WeChat, and delivered to other locations. The gourd jewelry store has become a trading space for giant clams, turtles and corals, with nothing but the secret door separating legal commerce from illegal trade, Zhao told

Illegal products made from giant clams and tortoise shells are sold in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province, in January 2019. Photo: Zhao Xinyi

Long tradition

Tanmen has a tradition of diving for giant clams. In the past, the local people caught giant clams for private use, as the traditional fishing methods limited the amount that could be gathered. In the middle of the 1980s, some family workshops in the township began to process the giant clams they caught and made them into bracelets and necklaces. The ecosystem was balanced and everything was under control at that time, Zhao told

In the 1990s, with the rise of Buddhist culture and its related crafts, Jhan De-syong, a businessman from Taiwan, established the first shell craft factory in Tanmen, marking the starting point of the giant clam crafts industry, according to the Hainan Daily.

Driven by the considerable economic opportunities this trade represented, and supported by the local government in their ocean-going operations, a large number of fishing boats in Tanmen abandoned traditional fishing and began to catch giant clams in large numbers. The annual output of the fishing industry reached 160 million yuan ($23.84 millon) from 2011 to 2016 in Tanmen thanks to giant clams, according to an official of Qionghai, South China’s Hainan Province.

The large number of ships, advanced technology, accurate positioning and unsustainable fishing methods have not only led to a rapid decline in the number of giant clams in the South China Sea, but have also seriously damaged the coral reef ecosystem, Zhao told Satellite mapping revealed that more than 104 square kilometers of coral reef ecosystems in the South China Sea had been damaged as a result of drilling for giant clams, National Geographic Magazine reported in 2016.

In March 2015, the Qionghai people’s government, which administers Tanmen, announced that it would strictly implement the ban on the excavation, transportation and sale of giant clams and other endangered marine life. On November 30, 2016, Hainan issued regulations on the protection of coral reefs and giant clams, which stipulates that from January 1 2017, the island shall not excavate, catch or kill giant clams, or sell, purchase or make use of coral reefs, giant clams and their products.

With only a month remaining before the ban was imposed, it was difficult for vendors to find a way to sell, resell or ship their goods off the island. After two years, many people have left their goods in warehouses in Tanmen, worrying about how to deal with their giant clam products. In contrast to Tanmen, hundreds of stores in Haikou and Sanya in Hainan, Guangdong and East China’s Fujian provinces are still openly selling illegal products such as giant clams, claiming that they purchased them from Tanmen, Zhao told