Highway on hold

Updated: 2011-05-18 08:24

By Wang Ru (China Daily)

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 Highway on hold

A spotted seal on the coast of Panjin, Liaoning province. Tian Jiguang / for China Daily

 Highway on hold

Grassroots conservationist Tian Jiguang boards a ship on a field trip to find spotted seals, near Panjin. Wang Ru / China Daily

Highway on hold

A spirited online campaign helps shelve a construction project, which would have threatened the breeding grounds of spotted seal in Northeast China. Wang Ru reports.

On the way to the harbor, an anxious Tian Jiguang keeps looking out of the car window. It's a windy early morning in mid-April, and Tian, 48, is in Panjin, Liaoning province, where he will board a ship together with journalists and animal-rights activists.

They are hoping to observe spotted seals - the only fin-footed mammals that breed off the China seas.

The car passes through a large oil field and the Shuangtaihe National Nature Reserve - a coastal wetland covering 3,149 square km, that is home to various rare birds, including Saunders's gulls and red-crowned cranes.

Tian doesn't relax until he sees two excavators standing idle at the site where a 15 km coastal road, with a cross-river bridge, was to be constructed, which would have involved cutting through the last breeding grounds of spotted seals.

Thanks to Tian's online campaign, the project that threatens the survival of spotted seals in the area has been suspended.

On March 18, Tian, who is also founder of Panjin Spotted Seals Protection Volunteer Association, saw an environmental impact statement on the website of Panjin Municipal Transportation Bureau, inviting public feedback.

It was about the construction of the last stretch of the 1,440 km Binhai (coastal) Highway that connects six harbor cities in Liaoning province. The provincial government said it was key to improving the local economy.

Tian found that the project would get the nod only if Shuangtaihe reserve was reduced, with government approval. This would have put the breeding areas of spotted seals outside the reserve's boundary in Panjin.

Tian wrote to both the construction company and the municipal government, pointing out the risks to the seals, but to no avail.

He then turned to the Internet and finally his post on a micro blog, titled Liaoning SOS, caught wide attention, with more than 11,000 forwards and follow-up posts.

"There are other ways to develop the economy, but the vulnerable spotted seals have no other choice," one post said.

The local government responded and called a meeting where Tian met officials. The deputy mayor of Panjin also called for the protection of the mammals, in a reply to Tian's open letter.

It was suggested the government change the highway's route upstream 5 to 10 km. The suggestion was inspired by the successful diversion of a road in 2007 to avoid the habitats of Saunders's gulls in Panjin.

Spotted seals inhabit the icy waters of the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas. There are three distinct populations - one, of about 100,000, lives in the Bering Sea; another, also of about 100,000, lives in the Sea of Japan and Sea of Okhotsk.

The seals of Panjin belong to the third distinct population found in the waters of Liaodong Bay of Bohai Sea. They travel through Bohai Sea and breed in Liaodong Bay from December to May. Some small groups are also founded in Yellow Sea, East China Sea and in South Korea.

To protect the seals, which are under State protection, China has set up three conservation areas in Dalian, Shuangtaizi Estuary in Panjin and Shandong Miaodao Islands.

But the hunting of the seals for their fur and fat, and over-fishing, was pushing them to the brink of extinction. Global warming, which is hastening the melting of the ice floes, also poses another major threat.

An estimated 7,100 spotted seals were recorded in Liaodong Bay in the 1930s but that number had declined to 2,300 in 1979. Since 1993, after a series of measures to protect them, including a ban on hunting, the number of seals has recovered to 4,500.

Despite growing up by the Liaohe River in Panjin, Tian was unaware that spotted seals lived near the harbor. It was only in 1985 that he first saw these lovely creatures.

"Barring fishermen, locals seldom went to the wild wetland and the harbor, so few of us knew there were seals living nearby," Tian says. He was only aware of a factory that dealt with fat from seals, in the 1960s.

A lover of outdoor photography, Tian noticed the gradual worsening of the environment of his hometown from offshore oil exploration, pollution and over-fishing.

Though seal numbers in Liaodong Bay have increased in recent years, Tian says numbers have decreased in Panjin to about 1,000.

"We could see hundreds of seals on the land and ice floes some years ago, but can hardly see any now," says Ma Wenjun, a freelance photographer and also a volunteer in Tian's association.

During the mating season between January and February, the seals come to the Panjin coast from the open sea and return in December after a gestation of 10 months, to give birth to their pups. They feed and rest before leaving in May.

"The spotted seal is a shy animal and difficult to approach," Tian says. "Noise can easily scare them off."

He has also found that some restaurants in Panjin buy seals from fishermen and keep them as pets to attract and entertain customers. Tian even saw a spotted seal in a restaurant in Beijing.

Han Jiabo, director of Liaoning Ocean and Fisheries Research Institute, has been studying spotted seals in Liaodong Bay for a long time. He says: "Spotted seals need ice floes and land to breed. For six weeks, before the pups wean and molt, they need to stay on land most of the time. Offshore drilling has caused the riverbank to shrink, with over-fishing, pollution and shipping also harming the seals," the researcher says.

"The seals rely on sound to feed, mate and locate their pups. The noise from human activities interferes with their communication," he continues.

In 2007, Tian founded the Panjin Spotted Seals Protection Volunteer Association. He collaborated with the local fishery administration bureau to save seals and their pups from hunters. So far, Tian and his association, with more than 2,000 registered members, have saved and released 21 pups.

The association also tries to raise public awareness on the need to protect the endangered seals, by holding exhibitions at the city center and in schools.

Thanks to Tian's efforts, an observation station was built in 2008 to observe the seals. The Panjin fishery administration bureau sends rangers to patrol during the seals' breeding season, besides setting aside a reward of 1,000 yuan ($154) to fishermen who save a pup.

However, lacking the necessary veterinary support, the station has to send sick pups to Dalian, a four-hour drive from Panjin. Recently, a rescued pup, unable to withstand the journey, died on the way.

"Its name was 'Little White', " Tian says.

"How can we witness this lovely animal just disappearing and do nothing?"


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