The official launch of an international marine research station on the Pratas Islands, known locally as the Dongsha Islands (東沙島), a disputed group in the South China Sea, has initiated a process of internationalizing related oceanic issues ranging from scientific research to ecotourism promotion.
At a round-table meeting convened by the Marine Resources Conservation Working Group under the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization last Friday, Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) stressed that the Kaohsiung City Government would do its best to ensure the sustainability of the area, which administratively belongs to the city.
"The establishment of an international scientific research station there will facilitate future international scientific collaboration, further ensuring both cultural and ecological conservation," Hsieh said.
Hsieh said that ecological catastrophes had been observed because of past inappropriate activities involving fishermen from neighboring countries. Therefore the city government is upgrading existing facilities at a service station for Taiwanese fishermen in a bid to provide more assistance to scientists interested in carrying out research there.
"We aim to explore many interesting fields, including the conservation of coral reefs, the underwater cultural heritage involving sunken boats and ecotourism," Hsieh said.
The Dongsha Islands comprise Dongsha Island and two coral reefs, the North Vereker Bank (北衛灘) and the South Vereker Bank (南衛灘). The archipelago is located in a strategically important position along the major sea route connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Since the end of World War II, it has been administrated by Taiwan. Prior to that, Japan guarded the area for more than three decades.
Since 1994, a group of 57 Taiwanese scientists and researchers have launched a series of scientific researches in the waters of the Dongsha Islands. According to Jeng Ming-shiou (鄭明修), a marine biologist from the Academia Sinica's Institute of Zoology, abnormal climate effects caused by El Nino in 1998 caused coral bleaching in about 300km2 of ocean.
Since then, Taiwanese scientists have recorded the reappearance of coral.
So far, more than 120 kinds of coral reef have been observed and the coverage rate has increased to about 5 percent, Jeng said.
"We've recorded more than 300 kinds of fish but believe that there are more than 1,000," Jeng told the Taipei Times.
In 1999, administration of Dongsha was official shifted to the Kaohsiung City Government, which, since then, has been actively promoting scientific research and ecotourism of the islands, which are about 440km southwest of Kaohsiung.
Two years ago, scientific research led by the Kaohsiung-based National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYSU), first took an image of a mysterious sunken merchantman at a depth between 50m and 70m near Dongsha Island. Project investigator Chen Yang-Yih (陳陽益), who is also dean of NSYSU's College of Marine Sciences, told the Taipei Times that the 200m-long cargo ship was of design common a century ago, and could possibly have belonged to one of the active European trading powers of the time, such as Spain, France, Britain, or the Netherlands.
Chen said available documents suggest that some 30 ships of a similar size went missing in the area of the Dongsha Islands.