Taiwan's Offshore Island of Siao Liouciou
Underwater Cleanup Brigade
With coral reefs in peril, along with the fish they support, this little island's tourism industry operators have taken a very hands-on approach to the problem of underwater trash.
Underwater Cleanup BrigadeBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 495 )
Every Monday Lee Chong-chen, also known as "Dragon King," rides his motorbike back and forth around the ring road around the tiny island of Siao Liouciou, testing wind direction and searching for a tranquil bit of shoreline.
On this day the weather is pleasant without a hint of stickiness to the spring sea breeze.
Right around noon, companions sporting nicknames like "Dolphin," "Terrapin," "Manatee" and "Chub" gather, and a group of a dozen or so board a sampan and head out to a spot not far from shore, where they don wetsuits and scuba gear, arm themselves with shears and flop over the side with a splash into the depths.
One man stays at the sampan's helm while another keeps watch to provide support. After no more than a few minutes, green buoyancy bags begin popping to the surface. When opened, the overstuffed bags reveal a tangle of fishing nets and other detritus retrieved from the sea floor, a haul of 132 kilograms in just 40 minutes.
83 Forays over Three Years
Lee, a Siao Liouciou hotelier, formed this team of "maritime volunteers" to periodically go diving around the island and clean up the trash and fishing nets that end up covering the surrounding coral reefs.
Established less than three years ago, they've already made 83 underwater cleanup forays. In the process, they've scoured waters off every stretch of the island's shoreline.
"Today's weight is considered light; a single rope from some fixed net cages can weigh up to 300 kilos," the "Dragon King" says, gesturing to indicate the heft of the rope of which he speaks.
Over time, both fishing nets and ropes are carried by ocean currents and become entangled around the coral reefs, damaging or destroying them. The coral begins to bleach as photosynthesis fails. Coral reefs continue to shrink, and as they do the fish that rely on them as a habitat are also disappearing, Lee says.
Lee's formidable "Dragon King" moniker comes from a species of porgy, a fish that stalks the bottom of these waters. Born in 1972, Lee is well aware that if the sea surrounding this island becomes bereft of life, then the island community will die along with it.
A former purveyor of bathroom fixtures in Kaohsiung, eight years ago Lee decided to cast aside toilets and sinks, shut down his business and hop a boat out of Donggang, heading back to his hometown on Siao Liouciou.
"Lots of folks enjoy going to Japan's Liouciou," a wetsuit-clad Lee says with a smile (referring to the Ryukyu island chain in southern Japan, which are pronounced Liouciou in Chinese), "but they have no idea where Taiwan's Siao Liouciou is." Returning to the island reignited the fire within, and Lee became a snorkeling and diving instructor, turning his interest into a business and eventually opening a bed and breakfast, giving him a new direction in life.
In recent years, young islanders of a mindset similar to Lee's have been gradually returning to Siao Liouciou like salmon returning to their spawning grounds.
One after another they've been opening B&Bs, each offering an exotic ambience, which now welcome more than 300,000 visitors annually. Tourist visits to the island have doubled in the last five years alone.
"It's a rising tide right now, and everyone is overjoyed. But there is no sense of alarm about the ebb tide that's coming," says lifelong resident and fisherman's association chairman Tsai Pao-hsing, the deep concern over the bustling scene outside his window reflected in his face.
Although Siao Liouciou is bathed in sunshine year-round, a shadow has been cast over the island that it just can't shake.
Covering just 6.8 square kilometers, Siao Liouciou is the only coral island off Taiwan's coast. As the coastline has become more developed and more fishing harbors of various sizes have begun operating, the sand beaches are shrinking. With overfishing and pollution, the coral reefs are bleaching out and dying as well.
Tourism Boom to Soon Wane
"It used to be you got in the water and you'd see fish everywhere, but if you go snorkeling now, you won't see a thing," Tsai laments. Without the azure seas and blue skies, there is really no tourism draw to the island, and the tourism boom could peter out at any time.
Some B&B operators are beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Consequently, during a meeting of the local tourism association, Lee raised the possibility of B&B operators organizing a squad of volunteers to go on diving expeditions to clean up the rubbish, and "unexpectedly everyone present was in agreement," Lee recalls.
The consent was universal, among fishermen and the tourism industry alike, as all rely on the marine ecosystem for their livelihoods.
"It needs protecting if we are to continue to survive and operate," Lee says. The problem was, after counting and recounting, only three of those present were certified divers.
That's when they brought in veteran diving instructor Lee Yi-lee, the aforementioned "Dolphin," who began offering basic scuba instruction. Each participant paid their own way, totaling nearly NT$40,000, to kit themselves out with scuba gear, pay for classes and make the dives to get PADI certified.
Even the sampan the divers take out is lent to them unconditionally by its captain, Cheng Chi-feng, who also donates his time to take them out.
"All expenses have been covered by the B&B operators themselves," Lee says.
For his share of the volunteers' expenses, Lee sets aside NT$10 from the fees paid by each of the snorkelers he takes out every day. Others set aside a portion of what they charge for lodgings.
"We've now got about NT$200,000, so we've called a temporary halt to fundraising," he says.
The effort has grown from the four or five participants in the first outings to nearly 60 full-fledged members today. This passion continues to burn on the island and has ignited a similar passion in others.
Setting his sights on the next goal, the Dragon King adds: "Our greatest hope is that by doing something, we can make public officials take notice, and ultimately impose a ban on bottom trawling operations.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy