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New Appreciation for the Ocean Next Door on Taiwan's East Coast

October 19, 2003|Annie Huang | Associated Press Writer

ILAN, Taiwan — Lee Kuan-hsin never fully appreciated the beauty of his hillside hometown overlooking the Pacific Ocean until he bumped into a Singaporean marine biologist searching for crabs on the beach a few years ago.

The scientist told him that this area on Taiwan's east coast is one of the world's richest sources of marine life, but many species might soon be de- pleted. Alarmed by the prediction, Lee dropped out of college and set up Taiwan's only crab aquarium.

Most of his specimens were donated by fishermen.

"I could save many crab species from extinction, while they could proudly show off their catch to friends," said the 32-year-old owner of the Pei Kuan Aquarium in northeastern Ilan County.

With a greater awareness of the environment, Lee and many other Taiwanese are working to save this beautiful subtropical island from decades of neglect and damage caused by its frenetic pursuit of economic growth.

Together with the government, they are making efforts to build the island into a major environmentally friendly tourist attraction.

Ilan, pronounced Ee-lan, forms part of a 42-mile northeast coastal belt that begins at the northern port of Keelung. The coastline winds along tall, green mountains that run north-south, making up the spine of this leaf-shaped island.

A two-hour drive along the coastal highway offers spectacular sights of rock formations, bays lined with white sand beaches and capes protruding into the seas as landmarks for sailors.

Tourists can take cruises on pleasure boats that provide a panoramic view of the winding coastline facing the Pacific.

The star of the cruise is the volcanic Turtle Islet, or Kueishan Dao, that lies six miles off Ilan and resembles a tortoise with a head, shell and long tail. Hot springs oozing from an underground volcano add tints of yellow and green to the blue ocean.

When the tide is right, it's possible to catch a glimpse of dolphins or whales jumping out of the waters.

This part of the sea is home to a great variety of marine life, with a warm current passing through it and a ridge rising from the seabed that gathers plankton to provide food for fish.

At the aquarium and resort in Pei Kuan, visitors were wowed as Lee guided them on a tour of some 700 shellfish species -- from gigantic deep-sea crabs to thumb-size ones from mountain creeks.

Farther south in the Suao fishing port, Lai Rong-hsin, a vendor who made a fortune from trading coral, has shut down his jewelry shop and turned it into a coral museum.

"After making so much money from exports, we should save what's left of our natural resources for our children," Lai said as he showed tourists his collections of pink and red tree-shaped corals.

Many of the large pieces took more than 100 years to grow, he said.

The fishing port had 400 coral ships 30 years ago. The number is now down to less than 50 as the reserves are shrinking, and the government has set more stringent rules for harvesting coral, Lai said.

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