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Taiwan: A promising islet

Dongsha marine park could be a model for how to handle other disputed islets.

Tangled history

The Taiwan government flew a group of journalists on a two-hour flight from Taipei to Dongsha in a C-130 "Hercules" military transport plane, the U.S. military's workhorse that's been used by U.S. allies and friendly countries the world over since the 1950s.

On approach, the pilots obligingly flew across the massive coral ring a couple times at low altitude, drawing clusters of journalists to the C-130's few windows to ooh and ahh.

Once on the ground a government official gave the obligatory, pro forma re-affirmation that Dongsha was Taiwan's rightful territory. Then we made short work of the atoll's few sites: A lone Taoist temple, the new national marine park headquarters, a graveyard, a stone tablet with Chinese calligraphy, and what must be one of the shortest public bus routes on Earth — Dongsha Route No. 1 (there are no Routes 2, 3 or 4).

In one Monty Python-esque moment, government handlers had all the journalists scramble on to two vans and two minibuses, only to stop and disgorge us at the temple after a roughly three-minute drive.

Later, to get a good vantage point of the lake, our van drove about halfway down the airstrip and we trudged into low brush. A park official gave a quick rundown of the pond's flora, fauna and other features — including the unusual "upside-down jellyfish," which packs the lake, and unexploded ordnance. Asked whose ordnance, the park official looked embarrassed and said briefly, "Must be America's."

Like Taiwan proper, Dongsha was controlled by Japan in the early 20th century. American bombers attacked it in early 1945, near the end of the long, grinding Pacific campaign from Guadalcanal north to Okinawa (the U.S. military decided to skip a land invasion of Japanese-held Taiwan proper, but it did bomb strategic Japanese positions.) A small contingent of Marines even landed here in May 1945 to destroy a Japanese oil dump and barracks.

A few signs of Japan's occupation remain; to the Japanese journalists' delight, one official produced an at least 60-year-old, old-fashioned Kirin beer bottle found on the island.

Ecological collapse

Park officials painted a grim picture of the island's recent ecological trauma. Dongsha's abundant coral reefs once attracted fish of all varieties. They in turn attracted fishermen from mainland China (Dongsha is closer to the mainland city of Shantou, 140 nautical miles to the north, than to Taiwan proper, 240 nautical miles distant), Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan. Eight thousand boats crowded the atoll at peak fishing times. Some used cyanide, dynamite or other destructive methods; many dumped mercury batteries in the waters around Dongsha.

The crippling blow came in 1998, when massive coral bleaching brought about by El Nino wiped out some 80 to 90 percent of Dongsha's coral reefs, turning Dongsha into what one Taiwan TV station called a "coral graveyard." To this day, only some 40 percent of those have recovered, according to Chang, the park headquarters chief.

Taiwan TV documentary on Dongsha (in Chinese):

Now, coast guard vessels enforce a fishing ban within the lagoon and within a 12-nautical-mile radius around the atoll. Instead, marine biologists ply the area, studying the atoll's slow comeback and trying to help it along. It's part of Taiwan's goal to set aside 20 percent of its territorial waters as protected zones, said Academia Sinica's Shao. "It's a good example of environmental protection," he said. "Marine resources are declining worldwide — you see it everywhere."

Coral reef experts say the waters on the east side of Dongsha atoll, as well as off Taiwan's southern tip, make for especially resilient coral reefs because of a phenomenon known as "upwelling" and the replenishing currents flowing north from the Philippines.

Such areas may prove to be worthy of global attention and study, as higher water temperatures resulting from global warming knock out vulnerable reefs around the world. (In "coral bleaching" too-hot water causes symbiotic algae to withdraw from its coral hosts, draining reefs of color and the food it needs to survive.) "The upwelling area is like a refuge for coral reefs under the influence of global warming," said Fan, the researcher.

No Chinese visitors

So far, there's not any scientific or other cooperation between China and Taiwan in Dongsha — though there's plenty of talk about it. As China makes its own fledgling efforts at environmental protection, Taiwan's management of Dongsha and its six other protected national parks could be a model. "Everybody agrees that we need to collaborate," said Academia Sinica's Shao. "But the problem is, we need to find the money, and have someone write up the proposal."

For now, the only Chinese presence is the occasional renegade fishing boat, usually a small scavenging vessel that's no match for Taiwan's coast guard ships.

Back on the patrol ship, a Coast Guard official says they still come across the occasional violator. "But when we find them, they immediately run away," he said with a chuckle.

The boat makes a long arc and churns back toward the dock, past a vivid horizon in a hue that one park official described as an "impossible blue." By the dock, a beach of white, dead coral is lined with massive concrete baffles, strewn like children's playing jacks to prevent erosion.

As we approached the dock, a Japanese journalist leaned from the boat toward the surf to snap a few last shots. An obliging coast guard official clutched the back of his life-vest to steady him with one hand; with his other hand he held the journalist's hat on his head, to prevent it from blowing out into the South China Sea.