March 15, 2019

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TAOYUAN, TAIWAN, (March 19, 2019)

The northwestern coast of Taiwan holds a mysterious reef that remains a secret from much of the world – including local residents. Hidden in plain sight during the day, this prolific reef comes to life at dusk with thousands of fish, crabs and macroinvertebrates rising to the water’s surface. This particular reef’s one-of-a-kind endemic species population, topography and ecosystem exist nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, much of this exquisite algal reef has suffered destruction from industrial development and pollution throughout the last 50 years, and the remaining healthy area of the reef is under threat from a liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving port project. However, local community-based groups, NGOs and researchers are determined to convince the Taiwanese government to officially protect this unique reef and are working to preserve their cultural and fishing heritage, protect the living environment and develop a sustainable eco-tourism and hospitality industry to sustain the local economy.

The reef

International nonprofit Mission Blue has declared Datan Algal Reef a Hope Spot in recognition of the reef’s marvelously unique ecosystem that houses several threatened and endangered species and of the mounting importance of protecting the area from further industrialization.

Starfish in the reef.

Allen Chen, Hope Spot Champion and research professor at Biodiversity Research Centre, Academia Sinica, Taiwan elaborates, “The algal reef in Taoyuan is an ecosystem that’s very new to science. We are just beginning to reveal the fundamentals of the life this reef holds, and we have only been able to scratch the surface until now. With the Hope Spot designation, we believe we can raise our government’s awareness of how precious the Datan algal reef is and compel them to protect it.”

Chinese egrets

The Datan algal reef expands along approximately 27 kilometers of the Taoyuan coastline in Taiwan and is a special biotic ecosystem compounded of more than 7,500 years of history. Mainly constructed by crustose coralline algae (CCA), these porous, blackish reefs are enormous in size and will turn reddish when CCA actively grows in the winter. The reefs’ highly porous nature provides habitat to many marine species including the recently discovered endemic coral species Polycyathus chaishanensis. The reefs are also home to a large population of moray eels, crabs, numerous CCA species and the IUCN Red-Listed threatened green sea turtle. The reef serves as a potential nursery ground for several shark species, including the IUCN Red-Listed endangered hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) which are observed migrating through the reef’s waters annually between March and June.

Dr. Liu, Hung-Chang, a researcher with Independent Land Crab Ecology describes, “I have studied the ecology of land crabs for 30 years and have checked several thousand kilometers of seashores throughout my life and studies. I am amazed by the high diversity and abundance of crab fauna, as well as the abundance of other marine life there. It is a miracle that Datan algal reef can have such abundant marine life after being so seriously influenced by toxic polluted water from local industries for over 30 years. I can’t imagine how wonderful the original virgin seashore of Datan Algal Reef was.”

Polycyathus Chaishanensis

Unfortunately, a major part of the algal reefs has been silently sacrificed to support the economic growth of Taiwan and has faced severe destruction from modification of the coastline for landfill projects and by industrial park construction. It is estimated that about 75% of the reef (the northern region of the reef) has been damaged by industrial pollution in the last 50 years. The remaining 25% algal reef (the southern region of the reef) is still threatened by a liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving port project and storage stations of the Chinese Petroleum Corporate of Taiwan (CPC) and coastal and offshore wind turbines of Taipower Company.

Part of the agal reef was cut in 2007.

In 2014, a marine protected area located south of the Datan algal reef was established under the Taiwan Wildlife Act (TWA) at the Guanxian section in response to heavy protests from NGOs to prevent further development along the Taoyuan coast. However, the Datan algal reef is not encompassed in the MPA, leaving it to remain under threat of destruction.

The threat became a reality at a meeting in February 2019 in which the Taiwanese government approved of the construction plans for the LNG project – with marine scientists and activists strongly opposing the plans, citing doubts surrounding both its legality and necessity.

The reef with evidence of construction.

Lui Chih-Chien, President of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union elaborates, “According to the data presented by the developer, Chinese Petroleum Corporation of Taiwan, there will be a natural gas oversupply within several years after the construction of the LNG receiving terminal. However, the utilization rate of the terminal would not be high. I doubt why we have to sacrifice the 7500-year-old precious algal reef coastline for temporary natural gas usage.”

Jia-Hua Chen, Chairman of Taiwan Water Resources Conservation Union adds, “This is absolutely unnecessary. Construction permission has been granted without procedural justice. The construction work is currently being carried out. If we cannot stop it, soon after, the precious landscape will be destroyed, which would seriously damage the ecology.”

Taiwan’s coastal ecosystems have a long history of being subjected to pollution and development. The algal reef along the Taoyuan coast is a traditional fishing ground for local villages, providing a food source and income outside of the major rice farming seasons. The industrialized offshore fishery was developed after WWII and became an important economic support before 1980s in Taoyuan. Unfortunately, after the 1980s, pollution from the industrial parks (mainly petroleum-chemistry based) destroyed most of the algal reefs along the Taoyuan coast.

The Environmental Impact Assessment

Chen emphasizes the need for balance between Taiwan’s development and marine conservation. “Taiwan is most-known for its rapid economic development. Nevertheless, behind the economic achievement, we have sacrificed the gifts from Mother Nature by plundering the resources, polluting the ocean and destroying the habitats of all the marine life we depend on. Whenever there is a confrontation between economy and environmental protection, the government always opts for the economy and allows for corporations to destroy the environment even when there are legal systems put down to protect them. It is ironical to say that we do have over 40% of ocean territory declared as ‘marine protected areas’ with different legal strengths, but most of them turn out to be ‘paper parks’ without proper protection. Eventually, Mother Nature returns us with biodiversity loss, collapse of ecosystem function and the poisoning of our food.”

There is a petition open urging the Taiwanese government to cease development on the reef. It can be signed here.

Press conference held by local scientists announcing the petition to save the reef.

The Datan algal reef is perhaps the area’s healthiest in terms of reef structure, coverage, and biodiversity, making it incredibly vital to shield it from suffering the same fate as its surrounding reefs. The algal reef is proposed as a “stepping stone” for other reef-associated organisms in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. The Datan algal reef is the largest biotic structure, thus providing its reef-associated species a connection to northern populations in Japan.

“The Datan algal reef is a wonderful example of people working together and recognizing the importance of protecting marine ecosystems,” says Dr. Sylvia Earle. She continues, “We have the evidence that there’s incredible life in this reef, and the time is now to officially protect it.”

A healthy future for the Datan algal reef will not only preserve a magnificent natural wonder of the world, but the success of Taiwan’s entire marine ecosystem. Scientists have already observed the rich cornucopia of the reef’s vibrant biodiversity, and Mission Blue enthusiastically supports official government protection of the area and a halt on damaging coastal development. To achieve harmony between energy sources, economic development and conserving this immensely valuable ecosystem, we need to call not only on Taiwan, but on the rest of the world to protect it.

Protestors demonstrating with an “SOS” distress signal for the algal reef on World Ocean’s Day.

About Mission Blue

Led by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas – Hope Spots. Under Dr. Earle’s leadership, the Mission Blue team implements communications campaigns that elevate Hope Spots to the world stage through documentaries, social media, traditional media and innovative tools like Google Earth. Mission Blue embarks on regular oceanic expeditions that shed light on these vital ecosystems and build support for their protection. Mission Blue also supports the work of conservation NGOs around the world that share the mission of building public support for ocean protection. The Mission Blue alliance includes more than 200 respected ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations.

About Biodiversity Research Centre, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

As the leading biodiversity research institution in Taiwan, the Biodiversity Research Center of Academia Sinica (BRCAS), under the leadership of Dr. Shu-Miaw Chao, not only pursues excellence in research, but also in biodiversity education, and environmental conservation in Taiwan. Research scopes of the BRCAS ranging from ecosystem diversity, species diversity to genetic diversity, across the land and marine systems, contribute a significant knowledge in Taiwan and Asia in related research fields. This time, Director Shu-Miaw Chao led all the researchers of BRCAS to fulfill their academy social responsibilities by speaking for conservation and leading more than 250 scholars from Taiwan to sign the petition of saving Datan Algal Reef from the destruction of the developmental project in Taoyuan Taiwan.

 

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