Blue Sky over Blue Sea

China Pictorial (English) - - Ecology - Text and pho­to­graphs by Jia Dait­engfei

“Xisha, Nan­sha, Zhong­sha: my home since an­cient times. There, my grandpa dug for pearls and shells, and my fa­ther caught fish and shrimp,” goes a chil­dren’s bal­lad pop­u­lar along the coast of the South China Sea, ev­i­denc­ing the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween lo­cals and the sea.

In Chi­nese, “san” means “three.” On July 24, 2012, San­sha City was founded in Hainan Prov­ince, in­stantly mak­ing it the south­ern­most pre­fec­tural-level city in the coun­try with the largest sea area and small­est land area. De­spite the mea­ger pop­u­la­tion, for gen­er­a­tions, lo­cal res­i­dents have made tire­less ef­forts to keep sea and sky alike, blue.

Pro­tec­tion of Sea Tur­tles

On the af­ter­noon of July 25, 2016, Fu Yongbo, who works at a sta­tion for pro­tect­ing sea tur­tles on the is­land group called Qil­ianyu (“Seven Con­nected Islets”) in San­sha, pa­trolled the beach of North Is­land as usual. He slowed down and low­ered his voice upon see­ing a one-me­ter-long sea tur­tle lay­ing eggs on the beach sev­eral me­ters away.

Green sea tur­tles lay and hatch eggs on the beaches in the area be­tween April and Oc­to­ber. The Xisha Is­lands are one of the few places in China where sea tur­tles nest and breed. Moth­ers ar­rive with the night tide and dig holes in which they lay eggs as small as ping pong balls. They even sur­round the nest with empty holes to ward off preda­tors.

“Gen­er­ally speak­ing, they won’t chance lay­ing eggs un­til it’s dark,” ex­plains Fu. “But this tur­tle did it in the light this time—maybe be­cause a typhoon is com­ing.” A fe­male sea tur­tle lays an av­er­age of 70 to 80 eggs each time, five times a year. Sta­tis­tics show that only one of 100 eggs can sur­vive in­fancy, and it takes 20 years for green sea tur­tles to reach ma­tu­rity.

In about two hours, the tur­tle crawled back to the sea af­ter lay­ing her eggs. Sand started to loose in an­other nest some 50 me­ters away from her egg hole: In­fant tur­tles popped up one af­ter an­other from the sand. As soon as they were all gone, Fu be­gan to place plates mark­ing the num­ber and time by the egg holes. “It’s a way to guar­an­tee that ev­ery group is on reg­is­tra­tion with the ex­act time of birth.”

Tur­tle pro­tec­tion has been a ma­jor mis­sion for lo­cal peo­ple over the last two decades. In the 1990s, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment placed the sea tur­tle un­der state Class II pro­tec­tion. Many fish­er­men joined the daily pa­trol team off­shore, and the lo­cal gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished pro­tec­tion sta­tions for tur­tles. Along with the pa­trols, they in­spected nearby is­lands for two rea­sons: to move eggs to a safe place if they are sub­merged in wa­ter and to keep eggs from be­ing stolen.

More­over, lo­cals now pay great at­ten­tion to the liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment of sea tur­tles and un­der­stand the long-term plan to pro­tect these an­i­mals. “It seems to be tra­di­tion that tur­tles re­turn to the place they were born to nest and breed when they grow up,” note some lo­cals. “It is tremen­dously im­por­tant that we pro­tect our beaches well.”

Shade Trees

A lack of fresh wa­ter has re­sulted in rare veg­e­ta­tion on many islets in San­sha, some of which grow in barren places cov­ered with white sand and crum­bled corals. The en­vi­ron­ment is only wors­en­ing with con­tin­u­ous ty­phoons and ero­sion from the ocean waves. The best ex­am­ple of such de­te­ri­o­ra­tion is Xis­hazhou, or West Shoal.

It is an hour-long boat trip from Yongx­ing Is­land, where the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment of San­sha is sta­tioned, to get to Xis­hazhou. In relatively re­cent years, Xis­hazhou was un­in­hab­ited due to the harsh en­vi­ron­ment. Since the found­ing of the city, the peo­ple of San­sha have launched a long-term mis­sion to plant trees and con­duct cam­paigns of ecological pro­tec­tion.

Fish­er­man Liang Changjian from Zhaoshu Is­land was among the first group to plant trees there. His house lies only a few nau­ti­cal miles from Xis­hazhou. In 2008, Liang and oth­ers planted some Ca­sua­r­ina trees. “The lack of fresh wa­ter was the big­gest prob­lem to grow trees there,” he says. Res­i­dents took turns de­liv­er­ing fresh wa­ter to the trees. To­day, the trees are as tall as over two me­ters.

Nev­er­the­less, one piece of for­est can­not save all of Xis­hazhou. To sup­port the ef­fort, the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment has launched a green­ery project to im­prove wa­ter­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­tro­duc­ing a salt­wa­ter de­sali­na­tion sys­tem, rain col­lec­tion, and wa­ter pumps, as well as spe­cial main­te­nance per­son­nel. Par­tic­i­pants look­ing to plant more trees now trans­port soil, co­conut bran, fer­til­iz­ers and co­ral sand from Hainan Is­land.

To­day, 99 per­cent of the saplings on Xis­hazhou have sur­vived: Co­conut trees, Ca­sua­r­ina trees and Ceodes gran­dis line the shores, swing­ing in the breeze of the South China Sea.

Bal­anc­ing Fish­ing and En­vi­ron­ment

Dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties (1368-1911), fish­er­men in Hainan doc­u­mented mar­itime nav­i­ga­tion routes, which were col­lected in the Routes of the South China Sea, with de­tails in­clud­ing names, ac­cu­rate lo­ca­tions, routes, dis­tance, and fea­tures of the is­lands and reefs of Xisha, Nan­sha, and Zhong­sha. Dur­ing the time, fish­er­men fished the wa­ters around Xisha and Nan­sha is­lands ex­ten­sively.

Even to­day, fish­er­men in San­sha con­tinue to make a liv­ing using meth­ods that have been handed down for gen­er­a­tions: fish­ing the vast South China Sea. The mas­sive ex­panses of co­ral reefs around Qil­ianyu are home to pre­cious species of fish, crab, and shell­fish. Of­ten­times, when schools of fish ap­proach the reefs at high tide, many get trapped, mak­ing them eas­ily to be caught when the wa­ter ebbs.

Fish­er­men on Zhaoshu Is­land pre­fer fish­ing when it’s dark. They dive 20 to 30 me­ters into the wa­ter with an oxy­gen tank and flash­light seek­ing fish sleeping in the corals.

How­ever, div­ing late at night is clearly chal­leng­ing. An­other method has been de­vel­oped for se­niors and those with phys­i­cal dis­ad­van­tages. They use snor­kel­ing equip­ment to catch smaller fish, clean oth­ers’ catches, and col­lect shells.

To­day, tra­di­tional meth­ods of fish­ing face big chal­lenges from modern means. To im­prove the sit­u­a­tion, the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment of San­sha has en­cour­aged fish­er­men to con­sider the ser­vice and breed­ing in­dus­tries. “Mak­ing bet­ter use of the sea with new meth­ods” is a new goal for the peo­ple of San­sha.

A beach in San­sha. His­tor­i­cal records show that Chi­nese peo­ple have lived in and de­vel­oped the re­gion for sev­eral thou­sand years.

The nest­ing sea­son for sea tur­tles is from April to Oc­to­ber. To­day, the Xisha Is­lands are one of the few places in China where sea tur­tles nest.

Broth­ers Fu Ming­wen and Fu Ming­gang are renowned fish­er­men in the area around Qil­ianyu northeast of Xuande Ar­chi­pel­ago of the Xisha Is­lands. The vast ex­panse of co­ral reefs near Qil­ianyu is home to rare species of fish, shrimp, and shell­fish.

In years past, chil­dren of lo­cal fish­er­men in San­sha had to go else­where for school­ing be­cause of the lack of fa­cil­i­ties. To­day, Yongx­ing School has been es­tab­lished in the city of San­sha, the south­ern­most school in China.

The ma­jor­ity of San­sha fish­er­men's grand­fa­thers moved from Hainan Is­land. Ex­cept for fam­ily re­unions dur­ing Chi­nese Spring Fes­ti­val, lo­cal fish­er­men spend most of the time on the is­lands there. They often help with each other with var­i­ous tasks.

Xis­hazhou was once a piece of land with white sand and crum­bled co­ral. Fish­er­man Liang Changjian from Zhaoshu Is­land was among the first to plant trees there. Fish­er­men ship in fresh­wa­ter to wa­ter the trees. Fish­er­men take an af­ter- din­ner stroll on Zhaos

July 25, 2016: As evening falls, the sky turns from red to pur­ple, herald­ing an ap­proach­ing typhoon.

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