Pratas Island (Dongsha Island, 東沙島) should remain closed to tourists to protect its ecosystem, said university students who visited the biggest island in the Pratas chain last month.
The island is only populated by a Coast Guard Administration (CGA) garrison, other military personnel and some occasional researchers.
People who want to visit the island must apply to the CGA, although the agency hosts short summer camp sessions for undergraduate and graduate students in collaboration with the ministries of education and the interior, the Fisheries Agency and the Marine National Park Headquarters.
Pratas is 450km from Taiwan proper, and while there is an airport on the island, private airlines only make one-and-a-half-hour trip once a week, so the CGA deployed the 3,000-tonne Kaohsiung (CG-129) to transport the camp’s attendees, a trip that can take between 15 and 19 hours one way.
The camp lasted three days, and participants learned about the island’s ecosystem from the park staff and were given a boat tour by CGA personnel.
They also took part in snorkeling, tree-planting, beach clean-ups and stargazing activities.
During their short visits, the students found that the island’s water, electricity and other basic necessities were in short supply, which makes the idea of opening the island to the public impractical, they said.
Water comes from a desalination plant on the island, but saltwater has intruded into its well, leaving the tap water salty, so potable water must be transported to the island, they said.
A diesel generator provides electricity, but the power went out in the middle of the night because of the burden of having 30 additional people on the island, they said.
Cellphone service is provided by just one carrier, with 3G and 4G, but the 4G signal is weak, they added.
There is a shortage of resources on the island, said Kuo Chin-yu (郭晉佑), a senior student studying industrial engineering and management at the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology.
The island should not be opened for tourism because as soon as people step on the island, they damage it, the students said.
However, student groups or people involved in environmental conservation should be allowed to visit, they said.
Chang Chien-chun (張建軍), a doctoral candidate in National Central University’s chemistry department, said he is vehemently opposed to opening the island to the public, as there is not enough park staff or infrastructure to support such a move.
Although the island is a national park, resources are limited, said Chen Chung-ling (陳璋玲), a professor in National Cheng Kung University’s hydraulic and ocean engineering department.
The government should prioritize protecting the island’s habitat, she said.
The Dongsha Atoll National Park was established in 2007 and is not open for tourism, but the law requires a comprehensive assessment of the park once every five years, the Marine National Park Headquarters said, adding that the park could be open for tourism if plans change.
An assessment was done in 2012, and another is scheduled for this year, it said, so from mid-June to the middle of last month it asked the public for their opinion.
Experts are to discuss whether to open the island to the public in the future, the park headquarters added.
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