The Controversy of the Giant Clam

Young girl sitting on Philippine fossilized giant clam

Humans have always searched for paradise, yet they may have already found it and destroyed it long ago. Every day bigger pieces of paradise are being irrevocably damaged and lost for all time. This is especially true in the so-called third world countries where jobs are scarce and the economy is poor. It is easy to denounce the exploitation of natural resources when one lives in a highly-developed country with a wealthy economy. But even those highly developed countries have done the same in their development history. And one must ask themselves, what would they do to put food on their family’s table when they can barely afford a small bowl of rice.

In the photo at the very top is a young girl sitting on a fossilized Philippine giant clam. In the photo just above, this man is holding a recently harvested and endangered Philippine fluted giant clam shell (Tridacna squamosa).

As an amateur naturalist and a great lover of nature, the environment, and the earth, I am not advocating the exploitation of the earth, but merely trying to provide an understanding of one particular instance in a long line of controversial ecological subjects. This one will only focus on whether it is legal or illegal to export/import fossilized giant clam shells. It will also attempt to provide a brief history of the modern giant clam, and despite this subject being diverse as well as global, it will only focus mainly on the islands of the Philippines, a place I hold dear to my heart.

Just a little background: The Philippines is an archipelago that is comprised of over 7,000 islands with a total land area of about 300,000 square kilometers (115,831 sq mi). The 11 largest islands contain 95% of the total land area. The Philippine archipelago is divided into three island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

As islands, the Philippines are naturally surrounded by water, and in the case of these tropical islands, they are enveloped by warm, clear water which teems with much diverse marine life. Many of these species have been in these tropical waters for eons and their calcified and opalized fossil remains can be found on nearly every stretch of beach.

With the exception of the three islands of Palawan, Mindoro, and Romblon, most of the Philippine islands are considered to have been parts of islands formed at the southern edge of the Philippine Sea plate millions of years ago. The arrival of the first human species on the Philippine islands is estimated to be between 631,000 and 777,000 years ago in a period known today as Pleistocene.

The fossilized giant clam below is used as a garden decoration in a Philippine home.

In May of 1934, a Filipino diver discovered “The Pearl of Lao Tze,” otherwise known as the Pearl of Allah, in a giant clam (tridacna gigas). William Cobb brought the pearl to America, and today it is held in the probate (deceased will) inventory of Victor M. Barbish in Florida. In 2006, the pearl was appraised at $61,850,000.

According to fossil records, giant clams first began to appear in the early Miocene era. Their remains are seen along with fossils of various corals like the one in the photo above.

Below, the remains of an ancient reef that are loaded with the opalized remains of ancient sea life.

Above, the author’s wife sits alongside several pieces of fossilized coral and the well-worn remains of an ancient fossilized giant clam.

In general, every species of giant clams are nowhere near the numbers they should be. The ten species of giant clams considered in a recent finding as being endangered are the eight Tridacna species that include: tridacna costata, tridacna crocea, tridacna derasa, tridacna gigas, tridacna maxima, tridacna noae, tridacna squamosa, and tridacna tevoroa (also known as tridacna mbalavauna); and the two Hippopus species: hippopus hippopus and hippopus porcellanus.

Much of the worlds Giant Clams are endangered or threatened because of the following: (1) loss or curtailment of habitat or range; (2) historical and continued overutilization of the species for commercial purposes; (3) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to safeguard the species; (4) other factors such as global climate change; and (5) the species’ inherent vulnerability to population decline due to their slow recovery and low resilience to threats.

Giant clams are typically found living on sand or attached to coral rock and rubble by byssal threads (1) but they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including live coral, dead coral rubble, boulders, sandy substrates, seagrass beds, macroalgae zones, etc. (Gilbert et al., 2006; Hernawan 2010).

(1) A mussel’s byssal threads are produced from within the shell by a byssal gland. They are small proteinaceous “ropes” extending from the muscular foot. (© 2002 Laura Brentner, for educational purposes only)

Above and below, divers and fishermen in third world countries prize the giant clam not only for food but for the ever-increasing “ornamental” carving business that needed to find a more suitable alternative since the worldwide prohibition of the ivory trade.

There is evidence that in the South China Sea alone some 40 square miles (104 sq km) of coral reefs have been destroyed as a result of giant clam poaching, with an additional 22 square miles (57 sq km) destroyed by island-building and dredging activities. The poaching activities focus on the tridacna gigas variety because its large shell is considered a desirable luxury item in mainland China. Although direct poaching of giant clams would fall under the category of “overutilization”, the methods of poaching (e.g., explosives, tools of various sorts, and/or dragging and pulling to remove giant clams from the surrounding habitat) clearly has an impact on the coral reef habitat as well.

Historical commercial fisheries data points out that long-range Taiwanese fishing vessels targeted the larger species (e.g., tridacna gigas and tridacna derasa). This activity reached its peak in the mid-1970s and then subsided in the face of depleted stocks, strong international pressures, and improved surveillance of reef areas. In response to declining activities by the Taiwanese fishery and continuing demand for giant clam meat, commercial fisheries developed in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and the Maldives. The Fijian fishery alone, which was exclusively for tridacna derasa, landed over 218 tons over a 9-year period, with the largest annual harvest totaling 49.5 tons in 1984!

Illegal poaching by large-scale organizations of some species of giant clams appears to be a major issue in parts of the Philippines. Even in so-called protected sanctuaries like the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, hundreds of giant clams (tridacna gigas) were confiscated from Chinese fishermen who poached in the park in the early 2000s. Clearly, the regulations are there and even more clear is the fact that the enforcement resources and mechanisms to protect these sanctuaries are not adequate to protect that highly sought after species.

Humans have a history of the over-exploitation of natural resources without understanding the long-term impact that their activity has on the natural environment.  Estimates are that there are about 100 million different species co-existing with humans. Further estimates are that between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year.

It is estimated that nearly 75% of the inhabitants of the third-world countries where giant clams are endangered, either do not know that they are endangered or do not care that it is illegal to harvest them. This “philosophy of ignorance” also applies to many other exploited species that are near that precarious, endangered state. This, however, is not just a third world problem, but it is also a rich country problem in general. Collectors and souvenir hunters help stimulate this black market with their lust for the forbidden fruits of nature. And it seems that we have always exploited our environment and sometimes for the silliest reasons as this punchbowl below.

The punch bowl above belonged to the American President William Howard Taft, who in 1901 was appointed by then-President William McKinley to be the civilian governor of the Philippines. This garish piece was made from a Philippine giant clam (tridacna gigas), adorned by several silver siren mermaids. The punch bowl is part of a 32-piece set crafted by Filipino silversmiths, Fernando and Tomás Zamora around 1903. The set was exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase and at the Lewis and Clark exposition before being gifted to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History by then Secretary of War William Howard Taft in 1906—three years before he was elected president.

Below, an example of a giant clam in the Philippine National Museum.

So, what is the conclusion of all this? First and foremost, it is illegal to import a giant clam into the United States or any country that has signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreement, unless you have a specific permit issued by the United States and the country of origin.

That being said, it is not illegal to import into the United States any fossilized giant clam or parts thereof. The supporting data follows:


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Letter from Jim Jackson to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) (February 3, 2019):

Hello,

Is it legal to import into the United States fossilized giant clams from the Philippines, or from any other country?

Thank you for your assistance,

Jim

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Letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) to Jim Jackson (February 4, 2019):

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the importation of fossilized giant clams from the Philippines that will require clearance by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Our mission is, working with others, to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not regulate the importation of fossils or products manufactured with fossils from extinct species, such as dinosaurs.

However, the importation of fossils from currently existing species, such as the giant clam, are subject to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspection and clearance.

Please reply to this message with more specific information, in particular, whether you intend to import these fossilized giant clams for commercial purposes, consistent with our definition of commercial.

You can view our complete definition of commercial at the following website: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=eb06f265bda30f7a9826b7ad87641ea0&mc=true&node=se50.1.14_14&rgn=div8

Upon receipt of this information, we can better advise you on any requirements or restrictions that may apply to the importation of these fossilized giant clams.

Thank you for your cooperation in complying with our regulations that help protect fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats. Please feel free to respond to this message with any further inquiries that you may have regarding this matter.

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Letter from Jim Jackson to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) (February 4, 2019):

Hello,

First of all, thank you very much for your quick response to my inquiry and for the very thorough reply.

Here is the scenario: As one of the administrators for an internet group that answers questions about the identity of rocks, minerals, gems, and fossils. We try to help people identify items that they perhaps found in their backyard or on some field trip, or were passed down by an ancestor or friend, or found in some thrift shop, and etc.

We have had members in the Philippines post inquiries with photos of fossilized giant clams.

Recently there has been much controversy directed to several individuals from the Philippines who are apparently selling these fossilized giant clamshells. I can confirm that they are fossilized and not from some recent exploitation of living giant clams as I have been to the Philippines many times and understand and recognize both versions.

Our group has been told that as long as the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources provides a certificate, they are allowed to export them. We are talking about individual items of perhaps just one, single item or a fragment thereof.

Any additional insight into this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

Jim Jackson

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Letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) to Jim Jackson (February 4, 2019):

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your follow-up inquiry.

The U.S. importer is responsible for the legal importation of this fossilized giant clam from the Philippines into the United States.

Please be advised that the giant clam, Tridacna gigas, is a protected species and is included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The species covered by CITES are listed in three appendices according to the degree of protection they need. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be controlled in order to avoid overutilization that may threaten them with extinction. Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Party countries for assistance in controlling the trade in that species. Species listed in Appendix II of CITES only need an export or re-export permit for international trade. Species listed in Appendix II of CITES do not need import permits for international trade.

The U.S.importer must obtain a valid CITES export permit issued by the Philippines CITES Management Authority in order to import a fossilized giant clam into the United States.

The U.S.importer can find contact information for the Philippines CITES Management Authority on the CITES website at: https://cites.org/eng/cms/index.php/component/cp/country/PH

As the U.S. importer prepares to import this fossilized giant clam into the United States, they must also complete Form 3-177, Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife. The U.S. importer can find this form on our website at the following address: http://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/3177_1.pdf This form is not difficult to complete.

We do allow the filing of Form 3-177 on-line using our eDecs system. The U.S. importer can view information on our eDecs system on our website at: https://edecs.fws.gov/.

If the U. S. importer has additional questions regarding the use of our eDecs system, we suggest that they contact our wildlife inspectors at the port where they will be importing this fossilized giant clam for assistance. The U.S. importer can find contact information for our wildlife inspectors on our website at the following address: http://www.fws.gov/le/designated-ports.html

Regarding the completion of Form 3-177:

Since the U.S. importer is not importing this fossilized giant clam for commercial purposes, they do not have to apply for an import/export license and can leave Block # 2 of Form 3-177 blank.

Since the U.S. importer is not importing this fossilized giant clam for commercial purposes, there should not be any U.S. Customs and Border Protection document reference number for Block # 6 of Form 3-177.

The U.S. importer should enter the name of the carrier in Block # 7 of Form 3-177.

The Air Waybill or Bill of Lading number in Block # 8 of Form 3-177 will be provided by the carrier.

The U.S. importer should enter Transportation Code “A” for “Air cargo” or “P” for “Personal accompanying baggage” in Block # 9 of Form 3-177.

The bonded location for inspection in Block # 10 of Form 3-177 is the carrier’s cargo or passenger terminal.

Marking on Cartons Containing Wildlife in Block # 12 of Form 3-177 typically would include the U.S. importer’s name and address and the contents and would only apply to cargo shipments.

Since the U.S. importer is not importing this fossilized giant clam for commercial purposes, they can leave Block # 13b and # 14c of Form 3-177 blank.

The U.S. importer is the “U.S. Importer” in Block # 13a of Form 3-177.

The exporter in the Philippines is the “Foreign Exporter” in Block # 14a of Form 3-177.

Since the U.S. importer is importing a species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), they should enter the Philippine CITES export permit number in Block # 17a of Form 3-177.

The U.S. importer should enter Description Code “SHE” in Block # 18a of Form 3-177.

The U.S. importer should enter Source Code “W” in Block # 18b of Form 3-177.

The U.S. importer can find instructions for the completion of Form 3-177 on our website at:http://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/3177-instructions.pdf

The U.S. importer should have this form completed and have it, the original Philippines CITES export permit, and this fossilized giant clam available for inspection as they prepare to import it into the United States.

The U.S. importer must import this fossilized giant clam at a designated port. The U.S. importer can find a list of designated ports, and contact information for our wildlife inspectors at those ports, on our website at the following address: http://www.fws.gov/le/designated-ports.html We suggest that they contact in advance our wildlife inspectors at the port where they will be importing this fossilized giant clam in order to coordinate its clearance into the United States.

The U.S. importer may have to pay an inspection fee depending on the mode of transport. If the U.S. importer imports this fossilized giant clam as accompanying personal baggage, no inspection fee will apply. However, if the U.S. importer imports this fossilized giant clam via air cargo, an inspection fee of $93 will apply. For information on inspection fees and how to calculate the inspection fee that the U.S. importer may be required to pay, they can visit our website at: http://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/FeeCalculationChart.pdf

The U.S. importer should ensure that the exporter addresses this shipment to the U.S. importer and routes this shipment through one of our designated ports. In addition, they should mark on the parcel that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service clearance is required and include the original Philippines CITES export permit with the shipment.

Upon importation into the United States, one of our wildlife inspectors will inspect the shipment and contact the U.S. importer. The U.S. importer can then submit Form 3-177 to the wildlife inspector who contacted them.

In the event that the U.S. importer receives this fossilized giant clam and there is no indication that one of our wildlife inspectors has inspected it, THEY SHOULD NOT OPEN the shipment. The U.S. importer should contact the nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated port for instructions on how to proceed. The U.S. importer can find contact information for our wildlife inspectors on our website at the following address: http://www.fws.gov/le/designated-ports.html

Once the U.S. importer receives U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspection and clearance of this fossilized giant clam and U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection inspection and clearance of this fossilized giant clam at one of our designated or border ports, it can be shipped domestically, and the U.S. importer will be responsible to arrange for the domestic transportation of this fossilized giant clam to its final destination.

Thank you for your cooperation in complying with our regulations that help protect fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats. Please feel free to respond to this message with any further inquiries that you may have regarding this matter.

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Additional information if you are really determined to purchase fossilized giant clam shells or fragments of these shells from international sources:

1. Be careful who you buy these items from. You are ultimately responsible for their import, the correct paperwork and the legitimacy and legality of the items you are importing.

2. Purchase only from trusted and reputable dealers. There are way too many unscrupulous people out there that are very eager to relieve you of your money.

3. Consider using eBay to find and purchase your fossilized clam shells. There are many listings for fossilized clam shells on that site and you do not have to worry about paperwork and you have limited buyer protection.

4. Pay for your purchase from reputable sources like Paypal. They can help you recover your funds should something go wrong. Don’t be foolish and send cash, checks or money orders!

5. Make sure that you get original copies of the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) certificate. Unscrupulous dealers can easily forge these documents so take care that you are getting legitimate documents.

6. If a dealer wants to send you a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) instead of the required government document, walk away from the deal. No, run away! COA’s are not even worth the paper that it is written on!

I hope that has helped you determine that if you really want a fossilized clam shell in your collection, how to make an informed decision to obtain it.

 

Sources:

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/06/26/2017-13275/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS)

The Smithsonian Magazine of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use any photos or for hand-signed, high-resolution copies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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