Elaine Chen – Taiwan’s Coral Crusader

Elaine Chen

Elaine Chen, left. Photo: Glenn Smith

By Glenn Smith – One of several activists on Taiwan fighting to preserve its endangered coral habitats is Elaine Chen (陳映伶), a former public relations professional who underwent a career sea change and who now spends her days as a volunteer at the not yet fully operational National Museum of Marine Science and Technology (NMMST; 國立海洋科技博物館) near the island’s northern port of Keelung.

Recently, Chen was awarded NT$1 million (US$33,000) – a one-time donation from a corporate sponsor – for the launch of a 10-year coral rehabilitation and education project.

Earth Tribe – Activist News contributor Glenn Smith visited Chen at NMMST to learn more about her project.

Before we talk about your project, Elaine, let’s talk about you. How long have you been a volunteer at NMMST and what do you do here?

The museum opened earlier this year, but I’ve been a volunteer here a bit longer – since 2011.

I’m a guide. I take visitors to the tidal pools. These are on what is now museum land, but remain open to the public, and there are still several fishing communities here. Technically, this is a protected area, but we have no police power to stop people from fishing. In fact, Taiwan’s Wetland Conservation Act only went into effect in February of this year.

This is a problem in Taiwan. People want our marine environment to be protected. But local residents say, ‘Hey, we’ve always fished here.’ Then there are the tourists. More and more people come from the cities and want to experience the sea. But they don’t know how to do so in a sustainable way.

Teaching them how is my job. I teach them how to explore the tidal pools without harming the creatures that live there.

You were one of those ‘city’ people not so long ago. You grew up in Taipei, and worked there for twenty years, first as a journalist but later mostly in public relations.


How did you shift gears? Based on your current work, I’d call you a marine environmental activist.

I left the PR world because of my children. I have a son and daughter, and they were growing up. I wanted to spend more time with them. That was about 10 years ago. I’d always loved the outdoors – despite being a ‘city’ person, as you say – and I wanted to share it with my children.

I signed up for a class offered by The Society of Wilderness (荒野保護協會), a private environmental protection group. It was founded in the mid-90s, and today it has branches all over the island. My fellow students came from all walks of life – no academic background was necessary. We met for class once a week in Taipei, and then had weekend field trips. For us adults, it was like going back to summer camp.

The focus was on experiencing the sea. We were taught how to observe all kinds of marine organisms – both plant and animal – in their natural habitats. We were taught how to do beach clean ups.


Taiwan's north coast. Photo: Glenn Smith

This is where I met Dr. Li-shu Chen (陳麗淑), an ichthyologist (involving the study of fish), and today one of the directors of NMMST. Li-shu showed me that a woman is just as capable as a man in the marine environment.

In Taiwan, people think of the ocean as a male domain. It is cultural. But she is even tougher than the men. She easily leads students into the ocean. She doesn’t care about money. She has enormous enthusiasm, and her mission is to show people the beauty of the marine world.

From watching Li-shu, I learned that women can do these things and do them very well.

It sounds like Li-shu is a mentor to you.

Actually, I am lucky. Here at NMMST there are many people who have guided me – marine scientists who have taken the time to teach me.

But that was in recent years. Before volunteering at NMMST, my main contribution to preserving Taiwan’s marine environment was beach clean-up. I did that for years but all the while I was asking myself: Isn’t there something more I can do?

That has changed, however. At NMMST, I serve as a guide for visitors at the tidal pool areas. I’ve learned SCUBA, and I’m a certified diver. I have also begun traveling to schools and community organizations to give talks.

Which brings us to your project… My understanding is that you intend to grow corals in an idle abalone farm, and that there are many such unused nurseries along the Taiwan coast because of a plague that has devastated the industry.

Not far from here, there is an abalone production site that has been idle for nearly 10 years. Diving in it, I was surprised to see how fast corals had re-established themselves. Abalone are raised in concrete pens constructed in the intertidal zone – in effect, man-made tidal pools. The abalone farmers remove all the corals before introducing the abalone.

Near the site is an elementary school. It is at a tiny fishing village, and there are only 27 students in its elementary school (福連國小). I began taking kids from the school to the site, and showed them how corals and other marine species had re-established themselves. Despite living right on the shore, their link with the sea is broken. Their parents want them to grow up to be teachers, doctors or lawyers… anything but fishermen.

So that became my dream… to lease an abandoned abalone pen and use it as an outdoor classroom, and for experimenting with corals and measuring how they grow after being re-introduced to a former aquaculture site.

Not far from here, in Lungtung (龍洞; map), I found an abalone farmer willing to lease his site to me for 10 years.


A crucial form of marine life - coral. Photo: Glenn Smith

You’ve been in possession of the Luotung abalone pool since April. What do you intend to do there?

Ultimately, the goal is to create awareness of the importance of Taiwan’s nearshore marine environment. That we will do by bringing people there. We will be running short, three- or four-day summer camps and other programs. Visitors will snorkel and see how the transplanted corals re-establish themselves.

How we actually transplant the corals is a bit up in the air. There are so many possibilities. We won’t make changes to the abalone pool. The typical abalone pool has concrete walls, and the bottom is tiled with squares of cut stone with gaps left between them so abalone and sea urchins have places to hide. We will keep the basic layout intact.

For coral stock, we will harvest corals growing in other idle abalone pools. This a touchy area, as many of the owners don’t want divers in their pools. To get around this, we can approach them through their neighbors; for example, find a teacher at a local school to act as intermediary. Then they will be less defensive.

In our pool, we will re-introduce four or five of the major coral species indigenous to North Taiwan. The sea water here is cold so there is less diversity than is found down at Kenting (墾丁) at the southern tip of the island.

We will arrange the corals by species in a grid, and we have equipment to measure temperature and salinity, so we can collect data that might be of use to scientists.

Are local scientists advising you on the experimental set up in your abalone pool?

No. As far as I know, no one has done an in situ experiment like this before in Taiwan. But there is lots of scientific work underway at universities and government labs. Then there are volunteer-run efforts like Reef Check, which conducts annual surveys of Taiwan’s reefs, and there are other small NGOs.

I Googled some of these NGOs. Most are trying to finance their efforts through crowd-funding but haven’t achieved their targets. How did you find a corporate sponsor?

The money comes from Diageo, the owner of the Johnny Walker brand. Each year, it runs the Keep Walking contest in which anyone can submit a proposal for a project that is a personal dream. Keep Walking is in its 11th year in Taiwan, and nearly 600 people competed.

Originally, I was planning to rent the abalone pool with my own money. But if I had to do that, my project would have been of a much smaller scale.

So I decided to try my luck with Keep Walking, and I turned out to be one of 13 winners. It was a long drawn out process, taking more than five months. Forty of the contestants were asked to submit budgets, and the shortlisted 13 were asked to give face-to-face final presentations.

My award slightly exceeded the NT$990,000 that I had budgeted. I was given NT$1 million.

How will you use that money, and how long will it last?

Basically it is start-up money for the first year. But you have to remember this is a 10-year project.

You sent me the PowerPoint of your Keep Walking proposal, and looking through the budget I saw some one-time costs – NT$100,000 for photographic equipment and NT$80,000 for a project computer and NT$150,000 for a surveillance camera to monitor the site. But you will have repeat expenses – NT$200,000 annually for site rental, and then the big expense is for NT$360,000 for SCUBA gear rentals and then another NT$100,000 for the feeding and transportation of volunteers. What plans do you have for raising funds to support your project beyond its first year?

Obviously, a ten-year project requires multiple sources of funding. It would be nice to have a single sponsor, and believe me I’m looking for one.

Discussions are underway with an international bank – I don’t think I should mention its name as nothing is definite yet. But I remain hopeful.

I’ve also talked with a lot of Taiwan’s leading businesses. For them, the project would make an ideal corporate social responsibility campaign, but when I tell them it is for ten years, their marketing people shy away.

How about government? Have you tried to get funding from government agencies?

There is a downside to that. Anyone who receives government funding must abide by stringent accounting requirements. An official receipt is required for each and every purchase, no matter how minor, to seek reimbursement. The paperwork would be a full-time job. But you never know. If the project generates a lot of public awareness, the government might want a role in it.

So it sounds like, come next April, you don’t know where you will get the NT$200,000 to pay for the next yearly rental of the abalone pool.

Yes, but I’m optimistic. Worse-case scenario: I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket. Still, there are other people who are personally committed to the project, for example, my diving coach. He said he would help, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.

One last question: what benefits do you think your project will bring to other environmental groups fighting to save Taiwan’s coral reefs?

Again, the whole point of the project is to raise public awareness of importance of Taiwan’s marine environment. People say Taiwan has a seafood culture but not a marine culture. How can that be? We live on an island!

Maybe it is a legacy of martial law [1949- 1987]. Back then, most of Taiwan’s shoreline was a restricted area. Maybe I was lucky. When I was very young my father was in the navy, and he loved the ocean. He would take us to the beach, and he loved to walk on the hot sand. I remember playing in the salty water and making sand castles.

I want Taiwan’s next generation to know the sea that surrounds our island home, and learn to experience it in a sustainable way. Hopefully this project will help bring us closer to that goal.

Useful links:

An excellent one-page summary with map of Taiwan’s coral habitats compiled by Professor Dai Chang-feng, of Institute of Oceanography, National Taiwan University’s coral laboratory can be found here

Another good source of basic information is Professor Dai’s report, Assessment of the Present Health of Coral Reefs in Taiwan, which appears in the second part of this online pdf file

NTU’s coral laboratory can be contacted by email at corallab@ntu.edu.tw.

Readers wishing to know more about Taiwan’s abalone plague can get started by reading, Two Year Abalone Ban Suggested
or Ray of hope for abalone industry

Some background on the NMMST:

Taipei Times story

The Society of Wilderness


The English webpage for Taiwan’s Reef Check EcoDiver Program is here

Reef Check is represented in Taiwan by the Taiwan Environmental Information Association (TEIA)

徐巧玲 Ling
E-Mail: qiaoling@e-info.org.tw