Outrage over China divers' antics in disputed islands

BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese tourists diving off disputed islands in the South China Sea were pictured manhandling fish and other sea creatures, and described eating endangered giant clams, provoking online outrage Friday.

Photos posted on a Chinese internet forum showed the divers, said to be visiting the Paracel Islands, which China has occupied since 1974 but which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Members of the group scooped sea urchins from the bottom and one picture showed a spiky fish held between two hands - practices generally considered taboo by divers.

Several of the group held up blue starfish on their boat, and sea urchins were shown being cooked.

A photo of a giant clam was captioned: "We ate this".

Another read: "Clams are best eaten raw with some soy sauce. They will be crunchy and taste good."

Giant clams - tridacna gigas - are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

China began tourist trips to the Paracels in April, according to state media reports, and the divers reached the islands on a tourist boat on a five day trip costing 7,500 yuan (S$1,545), according to a post on the forum.

Chinese internet commenters often take a nationalistic stance on territorial issues, but many slammed the divers on Friday.

"Could you leave just one part of China's land undamaged?" wrote one user of Sina Weibo, a social networking service similar to Twitter, using the name Nini77.

"Is this the way you develop tourism in the Paracels? Develop it protectively, or else there'll be nothing left," said another user called WithoutBlue21.

China has held all of the Paracels, which it calls Xisha, since a conflict with South Vietnam in 1974 that left 53 Vietnamese troops dead.

As well as the Paracels, Vietnam and China have a long-standing territorial disputes over the Spratly islands and often trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration and fishing rights in the contested waters.