While many people regard Dongsha Island (東沙島) as a distant, mysterious military base that is off limits to civilians, few may know that the island, which lies 450km west of Kaohsiung, is also an ecological treasure trove.
In January 2007, the Ministry of the Interior named Dongsha atoll — a coral island that encircles a lagoon — and surrounding waters the nation’s first marine national park. Although Dongsha remains occupied by the Coast Guard Administration, the official in charge of the park, Dongsha Atoll National Park director Wu Chuan-an (吳全安), said his goal was to open the park so people can experience the pristine environment.
“The government established the park to protect coral reefs and its ecosystem. The park is not only a national treasure, it is a global treasure, and it would be fabulous if people were able to see its wonders,” Wu said in an interview on Dongsha Island last month.
The Dongsha atoll is an almost-perfect circle with a 25km diameter covering 50,000 hectares, Wu said, adding that with the waters surrounding the atoll, the entire marine national park covers more than 350,000 hectares.
Dongsha Island, the only inhabited area in the park, is positioned on the circumference and is the accumulation of white sand from shattered coral and seashell erosion, Wu said.
“The island is an unpolluted environment. Since the end of World War II, it has served as a military base and is only inhabited by about 200 soldiers. As a result, the surrounding waters harbor a rich and unique marine ecology laden with tropical fish, echinoderm, crustaceans, algae and seaweeds,” he said.
However, in the past decade the Dongsha ecology has been confronted with its worst threat yet, as global warming began to make the water uninhabitable for certain corals, Wu said.
“Corals are very sensitive to sea water temperatures and die when the water warms. For example, after the 1997 to 1998 El Niño, the coverage rate of corals on the reefs dropped to an alarming 10 percent,” he said.
A healthy coverage is about 60 percent.
Wu said that coral reefs are built when living reef-building corals grow on coral skeletons, adding that coverage indicates the percentage of coral skeletons that support live coral growth and is a major index for the health of a reef.
Fish-bombing — literally using explosives to catch fish — was practiced in the surrounding area, which added another level of damage to the delicate structures until it was banned by the park administration two years ago, Wu said.
Fortunately, with the efforts of his administration in the past three years, Wu and his team had drastically improved the environment in Dongsha.
“Coral coverage is now about 40 percent,” he said.
With the revitalization of the reef, Wu said the organisms that the reef harbors have proliferated.
“To date, we have documented 281 types of coral, 577 types of fish and seven types of seaweed, as well as mollusks, crustaceans and echinoderms,” he said.
Aside from conservation efforts in the water, Wu and his administration have also worked on preserving Dongsha Island’s ecological system and historical sites.
“The island has archeological remains of past activity, including 28 sunken ships in its surrounding waters, tools used by fishermen that date back to the Qing Dynasty and traces of the two Japanese occupations,” Wu said, adding that efforts have been made to preserve the artifacts.