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Ecology and Conservation

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Taiwan is a relatively small island with such a large and burgeoning population of people that land space is ever in short supply. Thankfully, Taiwan's lack of land resources is balanced by a bounty of rich marine resources. Yet, due to a history of unchecked development, the ecology of Taiwan's coastal areas is facing a serious situation of damage and excess. Marine and coastal conservation has finally become an undeniably urgent item on the national agenda, and it is our duty to protect and rehabilitate the natural resources we have inherited from history, preserving them and passing them forward with the original richness intact for future generations.

The Damaged Coastal Regions of Taiwan

The perimeter coastline of Taiwan island unfolds in a wide variety of topographies, from beaches of white sand or darker gravel to coral reefs and rocky shores, from the gently sloping west coast, where the shoreline drops only 60 meters to the floor of the South China Sea, to the rugged landscape of the east coast, where slopes plunge 6,000 meters to the ocean floor at the bottom of the Philippine Trench. The wide variety of landscapes has created unique habitats, each supporting its own ecosystem and biology. With its unspoiled natural heritage, Taiwan was once widely known by names like the Butterfly Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Butterfly Fish. However, due to unchecked industrial activities, water pollution, and encroaching coastal development, much of Taiwan’s vibrant natural endowment has vanished along with disappearing littoral (inter-tidal) areas and wetlands. These negative environmental effects are not only reflected in natural seashores being replaced by man-made development, but also by more subtle damage to marine life which often happens without obvious visual clues.

Take Yunlin County as an example. It is a county on the west coast of Taiwan, about halfway between Taipei and Kaohsiung, and it has the highest development density of its coastal areas in Taiwan. The total coastline of this county stretches 32km. From the No. 6 Naphtha Cracking Project in Mailiao in the north of Yunlin County, to the Offshore Industrial Area in the south, industrial projects cover 90% of available coastline, completely destroying the natural coastal ecology. Similarly, construction of a crematorium disposal facility and a wastewater processing station in a newly developed area near Damshui of Taipei County are inappropriately situated, directly in the inter-tidal zone. In the case of these developments, the marine coastal environment suffered a natural disaster, with less than ten marine species surviving in the 37 hectare gravel inter-tidal area, compared with nearly 1,000 species of benthos living in a comparable area of unspoiled resources. This is just another example of consequences from Taiwan’s extended human development of coastal areas, and the victim is always marine life, vanishing quietly from the original beauty of coastal areas.

Costal Conservation Starts with Rivers

As a general rule, all pollution sources in rivers eventually converge toward the ocean as their final destination. Though it is true that the ocean has vast and incomparable vitality, the long-term accumulation of harmful wastes is taking its toll on ocean ecology. Water pollution causes immeasurable global costs to marine ecosystems. A solution to this problem, a way to return to healthy marine and coastal ecology, begins with the protection and rehabilitation of rivers.
It is a big contrast comparing the major rivers of Taiwan’s modern industrial era, heavily polluted and devoid of healthy life, with the river networks of the earlier agricultural age, clear and rich with aquatic organisms. River pollution interferes with the ability of migratory species (both anadromous and catadromous) such as Anguilliformes , Anguilla marmorata, Plecoglossus altivelis and Nemateleotris decora to migrate to their breeding grounds. Though river management is a governmental responsibility, some practices cause more problems than they solve. One practice is to pave over sections of gravel river beds with cement. Obviously, this leads to a well-dredged river, easily managed, but a cement river bed destroys the natural habitats and ecosystems, as well as interfering with other important functions of a river, such as water conservation and self-rehabilitation.There is much that needs to be improved in the river networks of Taiwan. Those areas of our environment that are over-developed need to establish thoughtfully-considered limits on further development. On the other hand, there are already some preliminary accomplishments that deserve praise, such as the closure of certain rivers for rehabilitation purposes, and the establishment of river conservation areas. These helpful actions have begun to yield positive results, bringing selected rivers back into a more balanced ecosystem.

Example of Green Island

Green Island is a small volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs. It is a visually stunning natural environment, a potential showcase example of marine biodiversity. However, since Green Island is a popular travel destination, with large crowds of tourists converging on this tiny location, local fish resources are exploited at a disproportionate rate to feed the demand of busy seafood restaurants. Furthermore, there is much damage caused to the fragile coral reefs by undisciplined tourists while snorkelling and exploring. However, as a matter of fact, the amazing iconic images of snorkelling Taiwanese tourists encountering schools of tropical fish are actually taken from photo archives, as those days are long gone on Green Island. Unless mainstream Taiwan’s enjoyment of ocean resources changes from a superficial appetite for seafood and pleasant experiences to a deeper sense of joy and appreciation for marine life, our oceans will never recover.

Most people demonstrate a lack of depth in their education about environmental and conservational issues affecting our oceans. As a result, thoughtless practices, such as over-fishing, cause an unbalanced ecosystem, with a growing list of endangered species. Birgus latro is a good example. This species is under threat of extinction simply because they are such a favoured ingredient for seafood cuisine. As another example, the most popular local transportation for tourists on Green Island is by scooter. While sightseers enjoy their pleasant tour of the island, wandering land crabs such as Gecarcoidea lalandii, Chiromantes haematocheir and Pagurian are commonly crushed under careless scooter wheels.

To accommodate influxes of tourists, more guest houses are built, and man-made development replaces the natural landscape, sometimes even damaging coral reefs. Modern technology has brought prosperity to humans, but with our short-sighted thinking and lack of good sense about environmental conservation, our progress has come with a devastating toll on the environment. The basic approach to marine conservation goals on Green Island is to decrease the effects of human interference; by controlling the number of visitors, by forbidding the collection or harvesting of local marine life, by establishing conservation areas.

Coastal Ecology of Sanctuary

In a 2006 law passed by President Bush of the United States of America, a large portion of Hawaii was converted to a marine sanctuary. The sanctuary stretches 2,300 km along a chain of islands to the northwest of Hawaii, and covers a total area of 360,000 square km, making it the largest marine park in the world. Also in 2006, the prime minister of the Republic of Fiji converted thirty percent of Fiji’s total marine territory into a conservation area. With these two examples, expressed the importance of establishing Green Island as a protected conservation area, adding that Green Island was chosen as an ecotourism destination by APEC in 1996. Unfortunately, there is no current enforcement system to ensure Green Island follows sustainable development practices, and as a result the status of Green Island has been downgraded to “mid-level damaged island”. Ming-shiou Jeng further expressed that environmental rehabilitation of Green Island should be the priority at this stage, and it estimated that it will take 3 years of strict enforcement to restore fish communities.

The environmental mistakes of Green Island are not unique, having their counterparts in the experiences of Lanyu Island and the Kenting area. Techus maximus is a rare marine species that was driven to extinction from Taiwan’s waters over the decades. Additionally, many species of tropical fish that are harvested for aquarium purposes are experiencing dramatic declines. However, thanks to recent increases in global environmental consciousness, there is reason for hope, though many obstacles still remain. With the next positive steps of establishing efficiently managed marine national parks and conservation areas, along with rehabilitation and protection of endangered species, reduction of river pollution, enforcement of existing laws for coastal areas, and proper efforts directed at making the fisheries industry sustainable, Taiwan will once again become a showcase of healthy marine resources.

Resource Ph.D. National Taiwan University
Research Fellow of Research Center for Biodiversity, Academia Sinica
National Parks Quarterly of Construction and Planning Agency,Ministry of the Interior