South China Sea: The Story of the Tanmen Fishermen Local fishermen are often on the front lines of the South China Sea disputes.


To both domestic and international observers, fishermen from Tanmen, a small fishing town in China’s Hainan province, are the country’s “maritime rights protection” vanguard in the South China Sea. For centuries, Tanmen fishermen have been fishing in the area, particularly in waters near the Scarborough and Spratly islands, and in recent years have been directly involved in some of the major conflicts there, including the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff and the 2014 Sino-Vietnam 981 oil rig row. Tanmen fishermen have also been delivering supplies and building materials to China’s Spratly outposts and supporting China’s island building in the South China Sea. Hence, in China, it is said that without Tanmen fishermen, there would be no Sansha city, and perhaps even no South China Sea for China.

While it is certainly true that Tanmen fishermen’s growing presence in the South China Sea is encouraged by the Chinese government to a certain extent, the drastic transformation of Tanmen’s economic structure is the bigger driver. Since 2012, the rise of the giant clam handicraft industry has completely transformed this old fishing town – more and more and more fishermen have turned from traditional fishing to harvesting giant clams and sea turtles, which offer them much higher incomes. In 2002, there were more than 100 fishing vessels from Tanmen, all relying on fishing; however, with the rise of the giant clam handicraft industry, by 2014 there were just three traditional fishing vessels remaining. In the meanwhile, the number of handcraft retailers increased from 15 in 2012 to 460 in 2015, and handcraft workshops increased from a dozen to more than 100 during the same period, not only creating job opportunities for local residents but even attracting workers from other regions. By 2015, Tanmen’s giant clam industry was supporting nearly 100,000 people, according to estimates.

Because of overharvesting, however, it is increasingly difficult for the Tanmen fishermen to collect enough giant clams and other marine species such as Hawksbill sea turtles from the country’s inshore waters to meet the booming demand. Consequently, prices of raw giant claim have risen by a factor of 40 over the past five years. Driven by huge potential returns, the Tanmen fishermen are expanding their operations further and further, not only in waters near the reefs controlled by other South China Sea claimants within the nine dashed line, but also in neighbouring countries’ EEZs and beyond. It is not unusual for Tanmen fishermen to travel across China’s proclaimed nine dashed line to harvest the giant clams, corals and sea turtles.

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