Raw materials | Taiwan

The sand pirates

Chinese freighters are hunting for one of the world's most coveted raw materials off the Taiwanese coast. But the search for sand poses a problem not just for Taipei, but for Beijing

A man in a bright orange work suit stands on the deck of a ship looking over at a dredger.

Wang Chung-Yong watches a dredger

“We've been fishing here since we were born, it's kind of a family business,” says Captain Wang Chun-Yong, who has been at sea for 47 years. He, his father, uncle and cousin have relied on fishing as a source of income all their lives. The gaunt man has lines on his face. He started cooking on his eldest uncle's boat at the age of 13. At 25, he became a captain and sailed to Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean to catch tuna.

It was only a decade ago that he returned to the waters off Taiwan's Penghu Islands, fifty kilometres west of the main island he has known since childhood. There you can find the Japanese and Spanish mackerel that the fishermen of his homeland have always been known for. From Magong, the capital of the Penghu Islands, a two- to three-hour boat trip takes you southwest to the Taiwan Plaice, called the “Southern Shoal” by the fishermen.

The body of water is vast, located roughly in the middle of the disputed Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China. The shallowest part of the shelf is only eight to nine metres deep. Therefore, the water here is warmer than in the rest of the strait, which is sixty metres deep on average. This has made this place a traditional fishing ground for Penghu fishermen for over a century.

“When we go out, we're on our own in life or death”

Where do the schools of fish cavort? Where are the sandbanks? Where are the rocks? The sailors can answer these questions in their sleep. The area is that familiar to them. But for some years now there have been problems in the Southern Shoal. Wang tells us that the catch is steadily decreasing. The reason: not only are more and more mainland Chinese fishing boats illegally entering the waters of the Taiwan Plaice, but also hundreds or even more than a thousand large Chinese dredgers. They occupy the fishing ground that the fishermen depend on to dig up sand.

“The sand pirates' territory is huge and for many miles and kilometres you see nothing else but them. It's as if the sea is their home,” says fisherman Wang. Most Chinese dredgers have turned off their satellite tracking systems, so Taiwanese fishing boats cannot see them on their radar. The latter are also mainly on the move in the evening, when there is no good visibility at sea. As a result, there are regular collisions between Taiwanese fishing boats and Chinese dredgers.

“When we go out, we're on our own, in life or death. If there is a collision, we sort it out ourselves,” Wang says. “If we were to report, the coast guard would only be there when everything has long since been ‘incinerated’,” he says. That's what you say in Taiwanese when something is too late. As soon as the coast guard ships show up, the Chinese pirates retreat to their home waters - a cat-and-mouse game.

“When the pirates return to the Chinese coast, female traders are already waiting for them in the harbours to take the precious goods from them to sell them on to construction companies, for example”

The fishermen's boats usually weigh no more than a hundred tonnes, but the Chinese dredgers often weigh several thousand or even more than ten thousand tonnes. If the routes of the Taiwanese and Chinese vessels overlap, the latter don't swerve. It's like a shrimp meeting a whale: there is no choice but to make a diversion.

But what do the Chinese ships actually want with the sand from the Taiwanese seabed? The answer is simple: to make money. When the pirates return to the Chinese coast, traders are already waiting for them in the harbours to take the precious goods from them and sell them on to construction companies, for example. Sand is an indispensable raw material in China's booming metropolises, where skyscrapers are shooting up. So indispensable, in fact, that people resort to overexploitation to obtain it and put up with the devastating consequences.

At four o'clock in the morning, a cool sea breeze blows in Magong. The town on the Penghu Islands is still in deep slumber, but the fish market is already awake. Foreign workers bustle back and forth on the pier to unload the day's catch; the market's hundred or so female traders and employees chat with captains and bid on the goods neatly laid out on the floor in front of them. “5, 16, 0”. Fisherman Wang goes over the recent declining catch figures in his logbook.

“If the price of fish hadn't gone up a bit recently, I wouldn't even have been able to pay my workers their wages”

Overall, the quantities keep decreasing: “If the price of fish hadn't gone up a bit recently, I wouldn't even have been able to pay my workers their wages,” he points out. According to statistics from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the catch for Spanish mackerel in 2018, before the Chinese dredgers showed up in the Southern Shoal, was 346 tonnes. In 2021, it was only 160 tonnes.

Cheng Ming-Hsiu, who grew up in the Penghu Islands, is now executive director of the Centre for Biodiversity Research of the National Academy of Sciences.  He explains that the waters of the Taiwan Plaice are fed by the “Kuroshio”, an ocean current from the South China Sea. In combination with the low water depth and solar radiation, it ensures a comparatively warm water temperature on the Taiwan Tide. This makes the waters a suitable habitat for plankton, the food base for fish and shrimp. These in turn attract economically valuable marine animals such as Spanish mackerel, squid and whitefish that come here to spawn.

“Pumping sand here is like setting fire to a mountain and digging it up,” says biodiversity researcher Cheng. Hsieh Heng-Yi, director of the Marine Biology Research Centre in Penghu sees it similarly. He inspected the sand on board a Chinese freighter and found that the sample was terrestrial sand, which is normally hidden deep under the seabed.

“For Taiwan, the consequences of sand theft are devastating”

From this, Hsieh concludes that the biogenic sand on the surface of the seabed has been removed, leaving behind the sand that was formed on land 18,000 years ago. It has been removed to a depth of ten metres, which is the height of a two-storey house. How much does a ship have to pump out before sand is revealed that was originally buried deep under the seabed?

Usually, the illegal dredgers stay in a certain area and remove the seabed day and night, while large freighters travel back and forth between them and the home ports to transport the loads to China. “The transport ships can make two to three trips a day,” Cheng explains. On the way to the mainland, the sand is already washed to prepare it for use in construction. Buyers are usually not interested in the origin of the goods. Many do suspect that it comes from Taiwan. But from their perspective, the sand is only returning home, because: The People's Republic considers Taiwan its territory.

The business is extremely lucrative for the pirates: they get an average of one euro for a tonne of sand - and a freighter recently seized by the Chinese police was carrying around 73,000 tonnes of sand. Moreover, the pirates have hardly any costs: they pay no fees for the illegally pumped sand, and the dredgers they use are old. If the coast guard arrests a ship on Taiwanese territory, the damage is accordingly limited.

For Taiwan, however, the consequences of sand grabbing are dire. Not only in ecological terms and with regard to the livelihood of fishermen, but also in terms of the everyday lives of citizens. Just recently, the dredgers once again damaged an undersea telecommunications cable that connects Taiwan and its Matsu Islands, located just off the coast of China.

“To put a lasting stop to the invasion of the Chinese sand armada, Taiwan would need help from the mainland”

As a result, residents, schools and public institutions had neither internet nor stable telephone connections. According to the Taiwanese telecommunications company Chunghwa Telecom, the submarine cable has already been damaged 27 times since 2017, and has since had to be repaired at a total cost of 256.5 million Taiwan dollars, the equivalent of almost eight million euros.

While the intensity of the raids decreased during the Covid lockdown, the pirates are expected to return. To put a lasting stop to the invasion of the Chinese sand armada, Taiwan would need help from the mainland. For the port of Matsu is too small and the islands do not have sufficient capacity to stop the Chinese freighters at sea. However, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the People's Republic and Taiwan will come to an agreement in view of the geopolitical tensions.

According to marine biologist Cheng, it would be in both countries' interest to fight piracy. After all, in the long run, the Chinese fishing industry also suffers from damage to the marine environment. In view of the conflicts, hope is fading that the ecology of the Taiwan plaice can recover in the near future. For the fishermen of Penghu, it is a race against time. “When the last coral has died, it will be too late to repair the man-made damage,” says Hsieh Heng-Yi.

This reportage was written by Taiwanese journalists Will Yang and Yian Lee and produced in collaboration with The Reporter, Taiwan's first non-profit media organisation. The Reporter focuses on in-depth reportage and investigative journalism and aims to promote the building of a diverse modern society and media landscape in Taiwan.

Translated by Axel Kassing and Jess Smee