Two nations, one seal

Poaching and devlopment threaten a rare seal.

World Reports

Changxing Island, China – Lee Sihnae wished winter would be colder. Wearing just a light jacket, the 29-year-old Korean used her telescope to look for signs of spotted seals in the icy waters off Liaoning’s western coast, near Changxing Island.

Lee, a member of Green Korea, was in China to participate in a Pacific Environment-led trip to research spotted seals and their winter habitats.

“The spotted seal is a flagship species of the Yellow Sea,” said Lee, coordinator of the Wildlife Preservation Team with Green Korea. “And to save the last remaining population of spotted seals, Korea and China must work together.”

One of the most endangered species in China, the spotted seal (Phoca largha) is a migratory marine mammal that breeds on the ice of the northern Bohai Sea along the coast of northwest China. It is estimated that each year, one thousand spotted seals spend the winter months in the ice-laden waters of the Bohai.

Lee’s concern for the seals echoes in Dalian, China. Last year, Wang Zifeng established a local group there called the Save Our Spotted Seal Association. When meeting with Lee and her colleagues, Wang said, “to the spotted seal, China is the mother’s side, and Korea is the father’s.”

For Wang, a veteran conservationist, the meeting with Green Korea did not come easily. As a 65-year-old man in Dalian, Wang had never been approached by an international group, nor had a foreigner ever been interested in meeting with him to discuss his environmental work. Uncertain of how to proceed, he called the local fishery bureau and was warned not to “leak sensitive information.” Wary about the warning, Wang turned down the initial scheduled meeting with Green Korea.

Yoon Sanghoon, coordinator of the Eco-system Conservation team of Green Korea, was astonished. “What is so sensitive about spotted seal conservation?!” Yoon asked.

After consulting with a journalist friend who was familiar with Pacific Environment, Wang’s concern subsided and he became eager to meet with Green Korea.

In fact, this unique opportunity to discuss spotted seal conservation provided Wang with some previously unknown information. After viewing photos taken by Green Korea, Wang was surprised when told that most of the spotted seals that breed in the Bohai Sea spend the rest of the year along Korea’s western coast.

After several expeditions funded by the Colorado-based Global Greengrants Fund, Green Korea estimates that roughly 400 spotted seals are living around Bak Ryong Island in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates South and North Korea.

But while Chinese literature describes spotted seal migration routes from the Bohai Sea to the Bering Sea and back, and there haven’t been any scientific articles or papers published stating that South Korea is a major summer site for China-born spotted seals.

Better communication among scientists and conservationists will undoubtedly help both groups understand this endangered species better. Pacific Environment, during the past few years, has been actively bridging this information gap by promoting exchanges and environmental cooperation between Chinese and Korean environmental groups.

Wang Zifeng wasn’t even aware of spotted seals until February 2005, when the local newspaper Peninsula Morning Post covered several seal-poaching cases.

“As a local, I feel ashamed for not knowing that spotted seals are a local species and that such poaching occurs.” Like him, most of citizens of Dalian do not know that the coastal waters of the region are important spotted seal habitat.

Unfortunately, this lack of awareness has resulted in several serious threats to the well-being of the spotted seal. Local fishermen from Changxing Island and Lushun are under the impression that spotted seals are abundant, and have been illegally poaching seals as a way to earn extra cash in the winter.

Unlike seal hunters in Canada, where pups are hunted for fur, poachers in China catch seals primarily to sell to zoos or to use the genital organs for traditional Chinese medicine.

Advertisements for “longevity tonic” made from the penis of male seals are widespread in local newspapers and magazines. The company, Shandong Unison Bioengineering Co. Ltd. claims to be Sino-Canada joint venture, with product materials coming from Canadian harp seals.

But Wang Zifeng does not believe this to be true. He thinks the company actively purchases the male genital organs of spotted seals, which encourages poaching and killing of seals near the Changxing Island and Lushun coastal fishing villages.

According to Wang, “Some purchasing occurs out on the boats, where poachers just cut the genital organs from male seals and discard the body back into the water. Doing this, there is no evidence, so you can’t get caught.”

While poaching poses a direct threat to the spotted seal population, the development of a new seaport and industrial park is also cause for concern.

In June 2005, the Liaoning Provincial government decided to construct a port on Changxing Island and turn the 255-square-kilometer island into an industrial park. Nearly two thousand local families have been relocated to make way for this prospective enterprise.

Lao Zhao, a driver with the Liaoning Marine and Fishery Academy for the past 20 years, has visited Changxing Island many times.

photo of a spotted seal in an icy placePhoto by NOAA

“Who would come here to use this port?” asks Zhao. “There are several adjacent seaports that don’t even fill to capacity, and this one would mean even more distance in shipping and transportation.”

To people like Zhao, who are paid less than $200 dollars a month, the multi-billion-dollar project is an extravagant waste.

Along the road leading to the construction site, ruins of community houses abut vast and fertile agricultural lands. Fruit trees and corn fields lay abandoned; not only have the residents of Changxing Island lost their land, but also means of making a proper living.

Several months ago, Changxing Island, China’s fifth largest island, was part of the National Spotted Seal Nature Reserve. Yet, to make way for a full-fledged industrial development plan, the government ordered an adjustment of the nature reserve’s boundary.

Wang Peilie, a researcher at Liaoning Marine and Fishery Academy, participated in the re-zoning process.

“We have to let economic development go first,” said Wang, who facilitated the establishment of the nature reserve in early 1990s. “There is no choice.”

Now the Dalian National Spotted Seal Nature Reserve is entirely mapped on water, leaving most of the important habitat to be destroyed during construction. This, coupled with an increase in shipping traffic and pollution, will push the future of the spotted seal further into peril.

Now, in early spring, families of spotted seals live together on large icebergs; the newborn pups rely on fish caught by their parents, as they are slow to learn swimming and hunting skills. As the winds move in from the north, the seals drift slowly southward.

For the past several years, winter has been warmer in the Bohai Bay. The effects of global warming have resulted in less ice for the seals to live on, causing them to move closer to shore to rest and breed. Tragically, this makes the seals vulnerable to human encounters and, inevitably, to more poaching.

Scanning the scattered chunks of ice floating off the coast of Changxing Island, Ms. Lee kept hoping for evidence of spotted seals. She feels an urgency to save Bohai Bay’s spotted seals, as she knows that one seal lost in China this winter means one less returning to Korea’s Bak Ryong Island this summer.

Wen Bo works with Pacific Environment.

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