The giant clam Tridacna gigas which can grow to 120 in width and 200 kg in weight is one of a group of clams called giant clams – the Tridacnids. Although T. gigas is the biggest of them, there are others which are still pretty huge by clam standards. One of these giant clam species, the Maxima clam Tridacna maxima, used to occur in Hong Kong. It grows to about 40 cm width, though typically is only around 20 cm in width. But consult the IUCN records for this clam species and you will see that although it occurs throughout the tropical and sub-topical waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, the entry for Hong Kong sadly reads ‘regionally extinct’. When did that happen? Why did they vanish? These are the questions I wanted to find answers to.
When did it go ‘regionally extinct’?
The first entry I could find for the Maxima clam being regionally extinct in Hong Kong is 1983. Unfortunately that’s about all I could find. But at it has been gone from Hong Kong since at least 1983. Unless of course it has returned….its a slow-growing animal but has a very wide dispersal through free-floating larvae that live in the plankton – that’s why it occurs over such a wide geographical area spanning nearly a quarter of the planet! So theoretically, if conditions are right (see more below) and larvae are swept over Hong Kong or are purposely introduced by humans, the Maxima clam could reestablish itself in Hong Kong. So the next question is why did it go extinct in Hong Kong in the first place?
What happened to the Maxima clam in Hong Kong?
Apart from the fact that the Maxima clam lived on coral reefs in Hong Kong waters, I can not find any more details of how big the population was, which exact areas in inhabited (obviously coral reefs, so that narrows it to Eastern and Southern Hong Kong waters) or whether it was harvested locally. It is however clear that Hong Kong used to be a big regional market for giant clam species in Asia. Giant clams were and still are a delicacy in Asia (mostly the meat big abductor muscle) and the shell was used for decoration (though not extensively). Even the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has no useful fisheries statistics for Tridacnids. So there is no information on how many – if any – were harvested from Hong Kong waters before they disappeared. The maxima clam like all clams is a filter feeder which suck in water, filters out and swallows edible particles and then ejects the water out again. As such it is quite vulnerable to toxic substances in the water. In addition, it harbors symbiotic microscopic algae called zooxanthellae (zoo-oh-zan-the-lay) in its tissue. These absorb the clams waste products like CO2 and photosynthesize turning them into sugars in the presence of sunlight and giving off oxygen for the clam.
When open, the bright blue, green or brown mantle of the clam is exposed and obscures the edges of the shell which have prominent distinctive furrows. The attractive colours of the mantle are the result of pigment cells, with a crystalline structure inside. These are thought to protect the clam from the effects of intense sunlight, or to bundle light to enhance photosynthesis of the zooxanthellae.
This is essentially what corals do, too, which is why they share the same habitat – coral reefs. And like most reef corals the maxima clam also gets most of its nutrients from its zooxanthellae . Coral reefs suffer enormous damage from smothering by sediment that washes into the sea from rivers and rainfall and from clouding of the water and smothering by excessive algal blooms. Both of these were and still are to some extent big problems for Hong Kong waters, whereas in the past this was not the case. Algal blooms and sediment runoff increased a lot as a result of the increase in human population in Hong Kong and as a result of rapid industrialization and the associated water pollution. This combined with harvesting seems to be the most likely reason for the disappearance of the Maxima clam from Hong Kong waters before 1983.
Will there ever be giant clams in Hong Kong again?
I hope so. Like I said earlier, if conditions are right, any of the wide-ranging planktonic larvae of the clam that stray into Hong Kong waters could settle and grow to adulthood. Failing that humans could also try to establish them by attaching cultured juveniles to appropriate spots on reefs – but this is more complicated and costly, although Singapore has attempted this with initial success using another giant clam species Tridacna squamosa. But the main criteria is suitable conditions for a population to establish and grow – in other words we need clean seas again. Hong Kong has improved a lot on this front up until very recently, when the increased coastal development in southern China started to create a lot of water pollution which somewhat diminishes the results. There is still a long way to go. But I would say that divers should keep an eye out. In fact, the ReefCheck 2015 recorder forms even have a section for giant clams (Tridacna sp.), so its not just me that is hopeful! You never know. you could be diving some coral reef in Sai Kung, Tung Ping Chau, Hoi Ha Wan or the Ninepin Islands and come across a maxima clam. It might be an old dead one stuck in a reef with just the wavy outline of the two shell valves (probably) or it could have the fat, bright blue or green mantle of a live clam – in which case 1) hooray for Hong Kong and 2) please report your finding to the AFCD and Reef Check!