Blue Sky over Blue Sea
“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.”
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.