PALAWAN, Philippines — In a span of six months, Philippine environmental authorities have seized 150 tons of giant clam shells from a string of operations across the island province of Palawan, suggesting a resurgence in the illegal trade of the “jade of the sea” for the Chinese engraving market.
Since October 2020, authorities have been receiving tip-offs of the illegal trade, which involves local fisherfolk gathering giant clam shells across the province and burying them in select seashores to be unearthed and picked up by traders later on.
Reports show an average of two law enforcement raids occurring every month since October involving giant clam shells; the latest and biggest so far was on March 3, when authorities confiscated 324 pieces of shells weighing a combined 80 tons on Johnson Island in northern Palawan.
“The poached shells were the old ones that have been abandoned for a long time,” Roger Dolorosa, a giant clam expert from Western Philippines University (WPU) in Palawan, told Mongabay. “Most fishers know or [are] familiar where to find these large shells, hence they find it easy to collect.”
The haul included shells from Tridacna gigas, listed as vulnerable in the IUCN and in CITES Appendix II. The species is prohibited for collection and exportation in the Philippines, with violators facing up to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 3 million pesos ($61,800).
Local authorities who led the raid say the giant clams were amassed over a period of six months to a year, with the possible supervision of village officials. Authorities estimate the shells could have sold for $3.3 million on China’s black market.
With the pandemic lockdown limiting enforcement activities, by both security forces and communities, conservationists say Palawan’s giant clams are becoming a hot commodity in the illegal poaching ring.
“Being far from the watchful eyes of the enforcers, people in the fishing villages, especially in the islands, have more freedom even during the enhanced community quarantine than those in urban areas,” Dolorosa said. “Even if there’s no market now, they can hide the shells for the meantime.”
Cradle of sea life
T. gigas dwells in tropical seas in the Indo-Pacific. Found in the sandy substrates of coral reefs at depths down to 15 meters (49 feet), T. gigas can grow to a length of 140 centimeters (4 feet 7 inches) and weigh up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) within its 40- to 100-year lifespan.
Studies identify the clams as being pivotal in the formation of reefs and in the life cycle of various fish species. Coastal communities have linked the clams to the abundance of fish species. Giant clams are “important substrate that cradle other marine animals and plants,” Dolorosa told Mongabay.
Clams from the genus Tridacna were virtually extinct in Philippine seas a few decades ago, but a repopulation effort instigated in the 1970s by scientist Ed Gomez from the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) helped them rebound.
Palawan, known as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, is the only place in the country where scientists have observed T. gigas clams in the wild, indicating the province could hold the key for successfully repopulating the species, Dolorosa noted in a recently published study.
The population has increased to the point that private resorts and local governments can now purchase Tridacna clams from UP-MSI’s Bolinao Marine Laboratory (BML) and place them in nearby seascapes or marine protected areas. But it hasn’t yet reached a level that would allow it to be exported or to revise its IUCN and CITES listings.
The translucent giant clam shells resemble ivory when carved, and when China banned the import of ivory tusks in 2015, Chinese craftsmen turned to Tridacna shells as an alternative medium to keep its lucrative carving and engraving industry running.
Allegations of higher backing
Giant clams, called taklobo by locals, have been heavily poached in the Philippines; coastal communities eat them when fish are scarce. The clams are also a casualty of illegal fishing activities, particularly cyanide and dynamite fishing. Compounding these threats is the commercial harvesting or illegal poaching of the clams.
John Vincent Fabello, a spokesman for the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, a provincial government agency, told Mongabay that perpetrators have employed a different strategy since the start of the pandemic.
They comb through far-flung communities in the province, he said, luring artisanal fishers who were badly hit by the pandemic and the lockdown into a “get-rich-quick” scheme. The smugglers take advantage of local fishers being knowledgeable of the area and unacquainted with the legal and ecological repercussions of this trade.
Fabello said they instruct the fishers to stockpile the giant clam shells under the sand near the shoreline, from where a boat would pick it up after payment is handed over by middlemen. Amid the pandemic, the local price of giant clams has doubled to 2,000 pesos ($40) per kilo.
Tracking down the people financing the illegal trade is a difficult task for environmental law enforcers, who for years have struggled to stamp out illegal activities amid limited resources.
Smugglers, when caught, also tend to invoke names of senior government officials to justify their illegal activities, Fabello said. They carry with them “accompanying fake papers that supposedly allow them to collect, buy and trade shells of giant clams,” he added, citing a case of a smuggler who was arrested in Puerto Princesa City, the Palawan provincial capital. The individual attempted to evade arrest by warning that “a permit will be coming out soon with endorsement from President [Rodrigo] Duterte.”
Authorities are looking into allegations that the clandestine activity is rampant nationwide and has the “backings from persons of higher authority.” Fabello said tracking down the individuals behind the giant clam trade is difficult, especially if it involves those outside Palawan.
While there’s been an increase in seizures, Elizabeth John of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said it’s too soon to say whether there’s rising demand for giant clam shells. It’s also difficult to say if the trend is backed by the pandemic, she added.
“The volumes seized recently are very alarming but understanding what is driving these trends need careful analysis,” she said, adding there’s very little literature on the giant clam trade to begin with. “What we can say at this point is that the massive collection of shells seems a result of fairly recent activity, perhaps over the last 10 years.”
The high sums that buyers offer to locals in impoverished coastal communities may be fueling collection, but digging deeper into other factors is crucial, John said.
What’s certain, she said, is “that the increased enforcement effort seen has been influenced by an increase in public reporting the illegal collection giant clams, which is a good development for the conservation of giant clams.”
Gloria Ramos, head of the marine conservation group Oceana Philippines, said the recent spate of raids is a welcome development, but more work needs to be done to net the big fish behind the illegal activity. “Public authorities in cahoots with private offenders should be held accountable,” she said.
The growing number of reported raids turning up giant clam shells also highlights the need to safeguard the areas where T. gigas occur, said Diovanie De Jesus, Oceana’s resident marine scientist. He specifically called for safeguarding what’s known as the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea that the Philippine claims is part of its exclusive economic zone but whose ownership has been contested by China. The area is a major poaching site for giant clams, with Chinese trawlers engaging in mass extraction of the clams through scraping coral reefs in 2019.
“Giant clams are more valuable when kept in their habitats,” John said. “For demand reduction efforts to work, this message must reach decision-makers, collectors, and buyers in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region where the giant clam is traded.”
This story originally appeared on Mongabay.com on 29 March 2021 as part of an EJN-supported project called Mongabay Environews Philippines.
Banner image: A Tridacna clam in Indonesia / Credit: kriscashman via Pixabay.