Bounty of the Seas

Seeking Sustainability for Taiwan's Marine Resources

2018 / May

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

In his poem “Do You Want to Be a Mermaid?” the poet Yu ­Kwang-­chung asks, “Do you know that the mountains are not as high as the sea is deep? / Do you know that the land is not as broad as the sea is wide? / Do you know the volume of the ocean’s magnan­imity? / Do you know the capacity of its forbearance? / Or what kinds of secret treasures are the Sea God’s riches?”

Though Taiwan covers less than 0.03% of the earth’s total land area, the seas around our island are home to one-tenth of the world’s fish species. Yet the sea is sounding a stark warning to Taiwan: Our marine resources are being exhausted, and habitats degraded. Only by action to conserve and protect our marine resources can this threat be averted.



There are some 220—230,000 marine biological species in the world. Taiwan, though small in area, has about 12—13,000 marine species. The reason why Taiwan has such rich marine resources is due to the island’s unique geographic position.

Abundant marine life

Taiwan is located at the northern edge of the “Coral Triangle,” an area of tropical seas with many islands and extraordinary levels of biodiversity. It is at the point of inter­section of three “large marine ecosystems”: those of the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Philippine Sea. It is also the meeting point of three ocean currents: the Ku­ro­shio Current, the China Coastal Current, and the South China Sea Current. And it has diverse marine habitats. All these are important factors in giving shape to different ecosystems that create its rich biodiversity.

Shao ­Kwang-tsao, former director of the Biodiversity Research Center at the Academia Sinica (BRCAS), has spent 25 years compiling the “Fish Database of Taiwan.” He notes that there are currently data on 3,200 fish species in the Taiwan area, accounting for one-tenth of global fish species, including 322 that are endemic species unique to Taiwan.

In particular, the numbers of species in the families Chaetodontidae (but­ter­fly­fish) and Pomacanthidae (angel­fish) are the highest in the world. For example, of the 122 species of Chaetodontidae worldwide, Taiwan has 43, or about one-third. Thus Taiwan is not just a “butterfly kingdom” on land, but also a “but­ter­fly­fish kingdom” at sea!

Not only are there many fish species, but their distribution has features unique to Taiwan. Because Taiwan straddles the border between the tropical and subtropical regions, there are marked differences between the marine life around the north of the island and that around the south. Shao ­Kwang-tsao cites the following examples: “In the seas off northern Taiwan you can see the chocolate hind [Cephalopholis boenak] and the smokey chromis [Chromis fumea], but you can’t see them in the south. And you will see no sign in the northern seas of the sharp-nosed garden eel [Gorgasia taiwanensis] or the sea goldie [Pseudanthias squamipinnis] that you can discover in the seas off Ken­ting in the southernmost part of Taiwan. It’s hard to find anywhere in the world that compares in terms of the richness of marine resources.”

Intertidal splendor

Taiwan’s intertidal zones also provide highly diverse habitats. Comprising rocky shores, mudflats, mangroves, rocky reefs and coral reefs, each individual ecosystem has its own unique environment and life forms.

Dai ­Chang-feng, a professor in the Institute of Oceanography at National Taiwan University, has been studying coral reefs for over 30 years. He notes that worldwide there are some 1000 species of reef-building corals, and of these around 300 species are found in the small sea area around Taiwan. At the Pratas (Dong­sha) Islands in the South China Sea there are 118 species of octocorals (corals of the suborder Octocorallia, in which the coral polyps have eight tentacles), while at Ken­ting there are nearly 300 species. This degree of diversity is as high as anywhere in the world. It can often take hundreds of years for a small coral reef to form, and some of Taiwan’s rare and beautiful reefs have taken hundreds of thousands of years to reach their present size.

Dai ­Chang-feng undertook a two-year survey of coral in the Pratas Islands. He says that the Pratas Islands atoll, which lies at the high latitude of 20° North, is some 25 kilometers in diameter, a size rarely seen anywhere in the world. After 20 years of natural re­hab­ilita­tion, along with a reduction in human interference after the creation of a marine protected area, the coral coverage rate in the lagoon of the atoll has risen from 0% after destruction by natural disasters, to 40‡50% ­today.

Restoring marine resources

Following on the issue of global warming, the exhaustion of marine resources is a marine version of An Inconvenient Truth, for marine species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Surveys by the BRCAS of fish popu­lations in Taiwan’s intertidal zones showed more than 300 species in 1999‡2001, but by 2010‡2011 there were less than 50 species remaining in northern Taiwan. Species that were once common have become uncommon, rare, or not seen at all, and there have even been regional extinctions. Also, the dearth of fish available for fishermen to catch has increasingly pushed up prices for consumers.

The main reasons behind the destruction of marine resources have been overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and human overpopulation. Shao Kwang-tsao makes an earnest appeal on behalf of the next generation, who he fears will perhaps have no seafood to eat. He calls on the government to take the first step toward the restoration of marine resources by setting limits for fishing: restrictions on fishing gear, fishing methods, fishing seasons, target species, fishing areas, and the number of fishing vessels.

“But restricting fishing only addresses the symptoms. To get to the root of the problem we need to establish marine protected areas, and citizens need to consume fish intelligently—that is, to eat only seafood that is fished sustainably.” To date the government has established the Dong­sha Atoll, Tai­jiang, and South ­Penghu Marine National Parks, and throughout Taiwan it has designated more than 100 coastal nature reserves and other zones for the protection of wildlife, wetlands, and fisheries resources. Shao urges the government to take measures such as creating no-fishing zones and establishing conservation areas within protected areas, but he laments that most of the designated areas are being used for management of the fishing industry, not for conservation. Therefore the most important thing is for the government to genuinely implement management and law enforcement, and not to fall into the trap of only having “on-paper” marine protected areas.

Carefully preserve marine riches

Nonetheless, where there is action, change is sure to follow. The Liu­qiu Fishermen’s Association in Ping­tung County has been willing to face up to the truth. Many fishermen have reported that in the seas around the island of Xiao­liu­qiu, the numbers of various fish species once commonly seen there—including the largehead hairtail (Trichiurus lepturus), the torpedo scad (Mega­las­pis cordyla), the red bigeye (Priacanthus macracanthus), and the moonfish (Mene maculata)—are far lower than in the past. Accordingly, in 2013 the association banned the use of certain fishing techniques, such as drift gill­net­ting, within three nautical miles of the island, and began encouraging fishermen to use more sustainable techniques such as pole-and-line fishing and longline fishing. Moreover, they ensure enforcement of fishing regulations, interdicting more than ten cases of illegal fishing each year. They are also constructing artificial reefs in order to provide additional habitats for fish populations and so maintain marine resources.

Liuqiu Fishermen’s Association staffer Li Yili notes that because gillnet fishing is dangerous to sea turtles, since the gillnet ban took effect snorkelers can see many sea turtles greeting them. Also, the average weight of largehead hairtail fish has increased from 1‡2 kilograms to 2‡3 kilos, enabling them to fetch better prices.

On Greater Kin­men Island, the Kin­men County Government has designated a horseshoe crab conservation zone in the inter­tidal zone at Gu­ning­tou on the island’s northwest coast, to protect the tri-spine horseshoe crab (Tachypleus tridentatus). Known as “living fossils of the beaches,” horseshoe crabs have existed for at least 400 million years. The crabs mate for life, and so they are nicknamed “husband-and-wife fish” in Chinese. Fifty years ago there were still many horseshoe crabs along the west coast of Taiwan proper, but because of habitat changes, by 20 years ago they had virtually ­disappeared.

The Kin­men County Fisheries Research Institute has for many years helped “couples” of tri-spine horseshoe crabs, which frequently find it difficult to reproduce, to lay and fertilize their eggs; after the eggs hatch, the institute releases the larvae into the sea. The number of juvenile horseshoe crabs has been rising steadily. There have even been cases of adult crabs coming ashore to lay eggs on the beach at Xiong­shi Fort, where there have been no releases of crab larvae.

Seafood Guide Taiwan

A further strand of marine conservation starts with consumers. Shao Kwang-tsao is promoting the “Seafood Guide Taiwan,” calling on people to not eat species that have been depleted by overfishing or whose environments have been damaged by destructive fishing methods, such as coral reef fish, bluefin tuna, and whale shark. On the other hand, people can eat more of those aquatic species that are still abundant in ocean fishing grounds, or are raised in well-managed aquaculture facilities. These include Pacific saury, tilapia, milkfish, and sakura shrimp. The message: Eat more migratory species, farmed species, and species from the bottom end of the food chain, but don’t buy large predatory fish or rare species.

The seafood firm “Upwelling” launched its “Responsible Fisheries Index” (RFI) in 2015. Taking into account the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the local environment for the fishing industry in Taiwan, a number is formulated for each seafood product based on indicators such as sufficient population, legality of catching, species’ reproductive capabilities, and impact on the environment. This allows consumers to base their fish purchases on the RFI number, production location and production method marked on the product packaging.

Satoumi: New focus for marine conservation

The effect of focused efforts at conservation in Xiao­liu­qiu, Kee­lung and elsewhere has been to restore marine biodiversity. Not only does the value gained in terms of ecotourism transcend the economic value from catching fish for eating, but the efforts also conform to the principles of protection of biodiversity and sustainable use of resources, matching up with the “Sato­umi” concept and trend that has been promoted in Japan these past several years.

Shao ­Kwang-tsao points to several examples. The ecotourism experience of collecting oysters with oxcarts at Fang­yuan, Chang­hua County, has facilitated the economic transformation of this fishing village. The Ku­ro­shio Ocean Education Foundation and the Ma­tsu Fish Conservation Union are promoting conservation of cetaceans, including the Chinese white dolphin. The protection of the Gao­mei and Aogu wetlands has created opportunities for cetacean watching and wetlands tourism. These are all practical applications of Sato­umi ideals.

Only if we earnestly endeavor to coexist harmoniously with nature can the diversity of marine life be preserved, and can marine resources grow and multiply without end. And only then will we be able to go on reading the poem of Yu ­Kwang-­chung: “How much coral and how many pearls are there, / How many sea anemone and starfish, how many floating jellyfish, how many sharks and dolphins? / When on land the dinosaurs had all become fossils, / The mighty humpback whale and sperm whale / Were blowing out magnificent waterspouts / On the bright blue highway. /… / Prairies of kelp, ranches of aquatic life, / The undersea vistas are limitless….”   

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