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NewsChina investigates the conflict in Dalian between sea cucumber aquaculture that supports local people’s livelihoods and protection of the endangered spotted seal, still at risk from poachers

By Zhang Xinyu Updated Apr.1

A released spotted seal swims in the waters near Dalian, Liaoning Province, April 16, 2021

The aquaculture farms packed around the coast of the Liaodong Peninsula near the northeastern city of Dalian are so extensive they can be seen by satellite. In Fuzhou Bay, where the Fuzhou River enters the sea, the dense rectangular ponds each contain more than 7,500 kilograms of sea cucumbers, a lucrative living for the area’s fishers and farmers.  

Yet on September 3, 2021, Wafangdian authorities issued a notice ordering offshore aquaculture farmers in Xianyuwan Town and Santai Town in the Fuzhou Bay to stop production, dismantle breeding facilities and complete their withdrawal from offshore sites by October 31, 2021. 
Wafangdian in Liaoning Province has been known for its sea cucumbers since the 1980s. In 2020, the Chinese Fishery Association awarded the city the title of “Hometown of China’s Liaoning Sea Cucumber.” The province is where most of China’s sea cucumbers are farmed. According to Bao Pengyun, a marine biologist at Dalian Ocean University, the industry in China is worth more than $8 billion a year, The New York Times reported in December 2019.  

The farmers of Fuzhou Bay were ordered to stop because their aquaculture sites all fall within the core zone of the Dalian Spotted Seal National Nature Reserve. In 1992, Dalian Municipal Government approved a municipal reserve, and in 1997, it became a national reserve. According to China’s Regulations on Nature Reserves, people cannot build production facilities in the core zone of a nature reserve, or even enter it.  

“But the offshore coast area here is salinealkali fields interspersed with reed ponds or barren lands, and the spotted seals don’t go there,” Jia Dezhi, a Santai farmer told NewsChina on December 27, 2021. Many of the farmers are refusing to dismantle their farms. On January 1, 2022, all the offshore aquaculture farmers in Xiaguwan and Santai presented a petition to the mayor of Wafangdian, querying what they said was a wrong delineation of the boundary of the core zone, and requesting authorities to adjust it.  

The boundary has already been redrawn twice, each time reducing its area. The battle for space between people and spotted seals has been going on for three decades. 

Upgrade Efforts 
The spotted seal is found in northern and western coastal areas and the islands of the North Pacific Ocean in three main population groups, one group in the Bering Sea numbering some 100,000, and another in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk with a similar number. In China, they live along the coasts of the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea, the only pinniped species (mammals that have front and rear flippers) to breed in China’s coastal waters. They are an arctic and sub-arctic species that live on the edges of sea ice floes in winter and open waters in the summer months.  

In October, they return to Liaodong Bay in the Bohai Sea, and the females give birth on ice floes the following January and February. In March, when the ice melts, seals search for food in the nearby waters and along the shore. The breeding ground near the mouth of the Liao River in the northern part of Liaodong Bay has become a gathering area for spotted seals. They rest on the mudflats, and the pups, born with white fur, shed this when they are weaned at two to four weeks for their waterproof adult fur, which is silvery gray. In May, they migrate for the summer to Baengnyeong-do Island, a major habitat in South Korea.  

Spotted seals spend most of their lives at sea, only visiting ice floes and land to breed, wean, shed their fur or rest. They are highly alert to danger, so are rarely seen, except by local fishers, who call them “sea dogs” due to their dog-like snouts.  

A local fisher surnamed Liu has been fishing around the mouth of the Liao River since 1961. “When the ship set sail, you’d see the beach was full of seals,” he told NewsChina. “Many big fish jumped out of the water on both sides of the ship, and the seals could catch them easily.” But over time, Liu noticed the spotted seal colony was dwindling. There had been uncontrolled hunting for their fur used to make coats, oil used for making soap or healing burns, and penises which were used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine.  

Wang Pilie, one of the first scientists in China to study spotted seals, collected data on the sharp population decline in 1990. In the early 1930s, there were around 7,100 spotted seals, reaching a peak of about 8,137 in 1940. By 1979, their number had dropped to 1,908. Wang was also one of the first to call for a protected seal reserve in the early 1990s.  

Zhang Wei from Dalian Spotted Seal National Nature Reserve Administration told NewsChina there were initially two plans, one that included the entire Liaodong Bay, and the other to establish smaller reserves north and south of the bay.  

Wang’s research found the northern part of Liaodong Bay, especially the area at the mouth of the Liao River, is where the seals breed. The southern part is the main area where seals are hunted. Fishers in Lüshun have a history of hunting spotted seals, and in the 1960s, they killed around 400 to 500 spotted seals every year.  

Zhang said that because the sea ice from February to March in north Liaodong Bay forms a natural protective barrier from humans, the southern part became a protected reserve in 1992 as hunting in that area was a serious problem.  

Han Jiabo, a researcher and former president of the Liaoning Marine Fisheries Research Institute told NewsChina that the reserve does not include the breeding zone, although it needs protecting the most. Instead, it only covers areas where the seals rest and their migration routes. This means the reserve was not fit for purpose from the start.  

The original demarcated Dalian Spotted Seal Reserve included the western coast and sea areas of Dalian and over 70 islands, an area of 909,000 hectares. Zhang Wei told NewsChina that since the coast was sparsely populated, it was all included in the reserve. Dalian Fisheries Bureau surveyed less than 1,000 spotted seals in the sea area, and as a result Dalian Spotted Seal Reserve was upgraded to a national reserve in 1997. 

In February 2021, the spotted seal was upgraded from a second-class to first-class national protected species. 

Sea cucumber ponds in Xianyuwan Town, Wafangdian, Liaoning Province

Conflicts Intensified 
The aquaculture facilities in Xianyuwan and Santai already existed within the core zone area when the seal reserve was set up. After two boundary changes, they remain inside the core zone.  

In Santai, the reserve includes not only the coastal waters but also nearby hills, roads some 5 kilometers from the beach, cemeteries and a dam built in the 1980s. “Why would the seals go to a cemetery or cross the road?” Qiao Hongquan, a farmer in Xianyuwan asked.  

Han told NewsChina that spotted seals rarely come onto land, especially places with human activity. If necessary, they will land on islands or uninhabited beaches. Han said that discrepancies between new and old coordinate systems in the mapping process might account for the strange inclusions. However, it might also be because although the original boundary was the coastline, land reclamation pushed out into the sea and authorities did not change the boundaries.  

This may be because the reclamation inside the reserve was illegal. According to an official notification titled the Public Announcement on the Rectification Results of the DL-44 Rectification Task of the Dalian Spotted Seal National Nature Reserve released by Wafangdian Municipal Government in November 2020, Jingang Coast Community was built in 2013 right in the reserve’s core zone, and was excluded from it in 2020. The statement said that Wafangdian Marine and Fisheries Bureau illegally granted a reclamation certificate for the project, one of the main reasons why there is continued illegal occupation and exploitation of the protected area. 

In fact, no aquaculture licenses have been issued in Xianyuwan and Santai since 2016, meaning all commercial aquaculture has been illegal for five years. The farmers were told at the time they would not be given new licenses. “Back then, no one told us why we could not renew our sea use licenses, and no one said we were in the Spotted Seal Nature Reserve. We were told we could continue breeding for now, and if we could renew the sea use license in the future we’d only need to pay the fee once,” Jia Dezhi said. “No government employee ever came to check on us since 2016.”  

Zhang Yue, head of the sea island department of Wafangdian Natural Resources Bureau, told NewsChina that they were stopping the licenses according to reserve regulations, and had informed the farmers. He admitted he did not know why the farmers continued their activities in the core zone area.  

Zhang said that in July 2020, Wafangdian City Natural Resources Bureau ordered farmers to stop using the sea areas in Xianyuwan and Santai. Yet many farmers the reporter interviewed denied ever being notified.  

In February 2021, the central government sent a team of environmental investigators to Dalian, who recorded 86 aquaculture farms still operating inside the reserve. Subsequently, Wafangdian authorities announced a ban on aquaculture activities in September 2021. Farmers started to realize the seriousness of the situation. In October 2021, farmers in Xianyuwan and Santai collectively appealed the decision to the city government. Their application was denied about two months later.  

The loss of income will be significant. Despite the fluctuation of sea cucumber prices, one pond of around 50 mu (33,000 square meters) could make 100,000 to 200,000 yuan (US$15,717-31.434) every three-year cycle.  

Jia Dezhi and his wife rented over 200 mu (133,333 square meters) of sea cucumber ponds. Jia said that once he stops breeding and dismantles the facilities, his losses could amount to 20 million yuan (US$3.16m). Several of the farmers told NewsChina their next step is to file a lawsuit.  

Shi Xiaoming, director of the Dalian Spotted Seal Administration, told the reporter that the bureau has proposed solutions to ongoing issues of the reserve plan approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the State Forestry and Grassland Administration. It is awaiting approval by the State Council. In June 2019, the central government issued the Guiding Opinions on Establishing a System of Protected Natural Areas, which mentioned the need “to solve problems left over from history, make scientific assessment of protected areas, and exclude towns, villages or densely populated areas and community livelihood facilities with low protection value outside protected areas.” 

A spotted seal pup at Laohutan Marine Park, Dalian, Liaoning Province, March 5, 2019

Existing Obstacles 
Thirty years on, the reserve is still failing to protect the seals. The biggest obstacle is that no population survey has been carried out for over a decade. 
Han pointed out in his research paper that the most effective survey method is aerial observation. But this has never been done, mainly due to the cost. Researcher Zhang Wei with Dalian Spotted Seal Administration Bureau said the bureau has discussed how to survey the seal population with Liaoning Provincial Institute of Marine and Aquatic Products.  

A survey would include four icebreakers each time. The cost of each icebreaker is 13,000 yuan (US$2,046) an hour for 10 hours a day. If it includes drones and helicopters, and a review process the next year, “the total cost would be at least 3-5 million yuan (US$0.47-0.79m).”  

The last aerial survey by Liaoning Marine Fisheries Research Institute in 2006 and 2007 put the population on the breeding sea ice areas in Liaodong Bay at between 890 to 1,200. In 2020, NGO China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation counted 338, and estimated there were less than 500 wild spotted seals in China.  

Zhang Wei told NewsChina that an accurate count is difficult because seals spend a lot of time underwater, making it hard to observe them from the air.  

The main reason for the population decrease is hunting and poaching, but changes in sea ice, food sources, pollution and sea transportation can also affect their habitats.  

The reserve was fragmented by the two boundary revisions in 2007 and 2016 for local developments, with the core zone split in two. Han Jiabo, a consultant for the reserve, said it should consider the balance between protection and economic development, and that “so far, Dalian Spotted Seal Nature Reserve still maintains its core zone for protection of the species.”  
However, seal poaching continues. In February 2019, police seized over 100 spotted seal pups at a farm in Hutun Town of Wafangdian City. The suspects told police that in January 2019, they sailed to the northern ice area of Liaodong Bay to poach spotted seal cubs. They docked unseen on Changxing Island and shipped the cubs to Hutun for breeding.  

In May 2019, 37 of the spotted seal pups were released, although 29 had died as they were only two weeks old and too young to be taken from their mothers. Another 24 had been previously released. Media reported the traffickers had planned to sell them to aquariums, shops and restaurants. Police arrested eight suspects.  

“The poaching happens in the north of Liaodong Bay, and we can’t cover it in our daily patrols,” said Shi Xiaoming, director of the Dalian seal administration. The biggest challenge is that the main breeding area is not within the reserve. The legacies left by the initial establishment of Dalian Spotted Seal Reserve have resulted in dangers to the seals that it aimed to protect.  
Dalian seal administration only patrols the fishing harbors along the coastline of the nature reserve that poachers may use, which is inefficient. Shi said they were applying to set up a monitoring system for the 36 key ports and docks in the reserve.  

Jia Dezhi and his family dare not think about their future if they have to quit the sea cucumber business. “We’re still over 3 million yuan (US$0.47m) in debt.”  

In January, the spotted seals moved to north Liaodong Bay, where they give birth and wait for the ice to melt to migrate to their summer grounds. They will try to avoid human activity and boats while people debate how to delineate the boundaries of the reserve in the right way. 

Spotted seal