Recent reports on dams Chinese squid fishing boats in the Taiwan Strait have once again drawn attention to the environmental impact of overfishing. However, swarming trawlers armed with green LED lights represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of environmental challenges for the islands off Taiwan, as small island communities fall victim to China’s unfettered approach to the issue. development and extraction of natural resources.

As the environmental damage caused by China continues to spill over maritime borders, from illegal fishing boats and sand mining dredgers to Marine debris – The Taiwanese coastguard is in an extremely difficult situation.

The nature of the problem is both environmental and political. As political boundaries are drawn through interconnected ecosystems, small islands are forced to bear the cost of environmental destruction which may come from external sources. The failure of the Chinese authorities to establish responsible environmental restrictions results in the destruction of fragile ecosystems, regardless of political jurisdiction.

Green sky: overfishing and light pollution

From mid-August to the end of September, the night sky over the Matsu Islands was tinged with green due to the high-power LED light attractors used by Chinese ships. On busy nights, around 100-200 ships were visible from Matsu’s main island, Nangan, with a majority to the northwest and northeast. The green sky prompted locals to satirically refer to the show as “Matsu Northern Lights” or “Matsu Aurora”.

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Squids that use green lights began to appear near Matsu a few years ago following research indicating that cephalopods prefer light with a green or bluish tint. This year the number of vessels using green lights has increased significantly. Although Taiwan’s national fishing vessels also use light attractors, the fleets are much smaller. According to the Taiwan Coast Guard, domestic vessels primarily use white or yellow lights.

While light fishing is not per se illegal, environmental groups have called for restrictions to prevent overfishing. Unregulated light fishing can cause environmental destruction, increased bycatch and depletion of fish. Biological research has revealed the negative impact of light pollution on marine life, such as disruptive light affects internal clocks and reproductive mechanisms of fish.

Beyond the Taiwan Strait, aggressive Chinese fishing has raised concerns around the world, especially as far as South America. A large Chinese fishing fleet of up to 300 vessels operating near the Galapagos Islands has been described as a “Great Wall of Light. “

There has been a drastic decrease in catches for the Matsu fishing industry over the years, and unrestricted light fishing is seen as one of the underlying factors. As local fishermen have observed, if fishing activities are not restricted, there may be no more squid or fish for future generations.

With overfishing being a global problem, it is important for countries in the region, including China, to establish stricter environmental regulations on light fishing. To cite examples in Taiwan, many city governments have put in place restrictions that regulate the number of lights allowed per ship, acceptable brightness (wattage), operating distances from shore, etc.

Impact on tourism and Starry Sky certification

Besides the fishing industry, light pollution also affects tourism in Matsu, such as the popular night-watching of “blue tears», A common name for bioluminescent algae. Although squid fishing is supposed to be banned by Chinese authorities from May to mid-August, which covers the peak of the “blue tears” tourist season, locally reported cases of Chinese squid boats indicate they have continued to operate illegally near Matsu waters. This has had a negative impact on the local tourism industry.

Matsu is currently seeking international certification as a International Starry Sky Place for one of its minor islands – Daqiu Island. The project promotes the preservation of the natural night sky and stargazing activities by minimizing light pollution. The certification application aims to raise Matsu’s international profile, as well as espouse a sustainable vision of tourism and development that contrasts with traditional models. However, light pollution caused by squid boats has also increased the difficulties for Dark Sky certification.

Threatening a critically endangered bird species

Environmental neglect has also led to the destruction of the habitat of a critically endangered species, the Chinese crested tern.

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A recent report by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly revealed that despite large-scale conservation efforts, the Chinese Crested Tern abandoned their nests in Matsu for two consecutive years, leaving behind many unhatched eggs.

Scientists believe the phenomenon is the result of constant disturbance by Chinese sand dredgers, squid and other illegal fishing activities. Together, these disturbances to wildlife extend 24 hours a day. Destruction of the local ecosystem has also led to depletion of fish – a food source for the Chinese Crested Tern.

With an estimated global population of around 100, the Chinese Crested Tern is an extremely rare migratory bird that spends its summers in breeding areas along the Chinese coast and in Matsu, while flying to warmer weather in the Philippines for winters. The rare species, which was once supposedly extinct for over 60 years, was rediscovered in Matsu in 2000. It has since been lovingly championed by locals as a “mythical bird” and county mascot.

Although the Chinese Crested Tern continues to be spotted in other places along the Chinese coast, its “flight” away from the Matsu Islands is the tragic result of environmental neglect, as well as conservation difficulties along a line. long-standing political loophole.

An illegal Chinese sand dredge seized by the Taiwanese coast guard is ordered to spit sand into the coastal waters of the Matsu Islands. Photo by Aya Liu

Strengthening legal institutions

Taiwan is taking action to curb environmental destruction in the strait. Following the international attention given to a large number of Chinese sand dredges surrounding Matsu in mid-2020, the Taiwanese parliament adopted a amendment which increased the sentence for those convicted of illegal sand mining to $ 3.56 million in fines and a maximum prison term of seven years. The bill, which passed in December 2020, also contained a clause allowing methods other than tedious court auctions to dispose of or dismantle impounded dredgers.

Taking a legal approach is crucial for Taiwan as the country tackles environmental issues at its maritime borders with China, as any unexpected use of force on civilian ships can be used as a pretext for China further aggravates the tensions. However, law enforcement remains difficult as the sources of environmental damage constantly extend beyond national borders.

The continued ecological destruction has sparked discussions in Taiwan about establishing expanded areas for marine conservation near offshore islands. For example, last year, lawmakers launched discussions on a “Marine conservation areaWhich would extend beyond the “restricted waters” of 6,000 meters currently imposed by Matsu. In the absence of efforts by Chinese authorities to reduce environmental damage in the region, more innovative methods may be needed to protect natural resources and prevent unintentional maritime conflicts.

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