Experts are raising the alarm over the destruction of coral reefs in the South China Sea that are critical for the marine environment and for preventing a collapse in fish stocks which sustain the livelihoods of tens of millions of people.
Marine scientists who have studied the region for years report growing difficulty in accessing the coral reefs to conduct vital research. They are calling for governments in the region to establish a regulatory authority that would halt degradation of offshore reefs and crack down on overfishing.
“We’re always on the verge of fishery collapse on the shorelines, and we think the reason they haven’t collapsed is because fish are still coming in from the offshore reefs,” said John McManus, a professor of marine biology at the University of Miami in Florida. “So we have to protect those.”
The South China Sea is home to about 177,000 square miles of extremely biodiverse coral reefs, according to a research article published in 2016. There are an estimated 571 different species of coral in its waters, and 3,794 different species of fish. By comparison, there are roughly 600 known different types of coral in the famed Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia, and 1,500 different species of fish there.
But some of the South China Sea reefs are “gone forever” due to the creation of military bases atop them, according to McManus. “If you built something, if you’ve put dirt, rubble, and pavement … There’s no way to recover that,” he said in an interview with Radio Free Asia.
The overwhelming majority of such construction has been by China, which infamously dredged up Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, Woody Island, and some other islets between 2014 and 2017, to make way for artificial islands that now host its military.
By McManus’ estimate, roughly 100 square miles of reefs have been destroyed by base-building and clam hunting. While China stopped large-scale reclamation in 2017, satellite imagery shows some parts of the South China Sea are still being built up. A new area of reef in the northwest of Woody Island, China’s main military base in the Paracels, has been torn up and dredged to make way for an unknown structure. Construction equipment has been spotted periodically on that patch since early April.Another major threat is posed by harvesting of giant clams through reinforced boat propellers, dropped by Chinese fishing fleets at areas like Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel Islands – which the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported on in 2019.
McManus said fishermen can earn about $1,000 for just two giant clams, which are found in layers of cement-like coral. He said virtually all of that harvesting in the South China Sea is by a fishing fleet from the southern Chinese town of Tanmen where trade in the clam shells is a lynchpin of the local economy.
But as destructive as that trade is, he said the coral damaged in the process can recover within 20 years if there are sufficient conservation measures in place – similar to the situation in a forest where trees have been felled but can be replaced with new growth.
Overall, McManus estimated that more than 90 percent of the remaining reefs in the South China Sea require immediate attention to preserve them.
The future of the reefs is critical for fish stocks. Besides clams, other species of fish have a symbiotic relationship with coral reefs, most notably in how reefs house fish larvae before they mature and wash out closer to the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, and parts of Malaysia.
Scientific research to learn more about the pivotal role of coral reefs in the marine environment and the problem of overfishing has been hobbled by the region’s territorial disputes.
“Nobody can actually get all the information they need,” McManus said. He has been researching the area since the 1990s.
He recounted two occasions where a scientific expedition into the South China Sea was shadowed by a Chinese warship and a fighter jet, respectively. He witnessed the first incident first-hand in 2015 while accompanying a Philippine news crew to Philippine outposts in the Spratlys.
“If you do go in there in a research vessel there’s always a chance that one of the many China Coast Guard vessels … might come up and actually ram you,” McManus said.
He estimated that about 20 percent of fish stocks are overexploited in the South China Sea, and are dangerously close to collapsing entirely, which would have a huge impact on the fishing industry.
Scientists call for regional cooperation
Ma. Carmen A. Ablan Lagman, a professor of biology at De La Salle University in Manila, described the current situation as a “fish war,” given the scale of illegal fishing and the sovereignty disputes in the area.
She and McManus were among the marine scientists who discussed the issue at an online forum last week hosted by the Hawaii-based think tank, the East West Center. They called for governments to form a Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or RFMO, to support conservation measures in the South China Sea and to stop the chronic trend of overfishing.
“Without agreement to a common fisheries policy [for] the area,” Lagman warned, “there will be a faster, as they would say, ‘race toward the bottom of the barrel’ of fisheries’ resources.”
Seventeen million tons of fish, worth $22 billion, land in ports around the South China Sea annually. Lagman said an estimated 190 million people live in communities on the South China Sea that depend on fisheries in these waters for their livelihood.
“Over 15 percent of the total world catch is coming from the South China Sea, and the need for the income from that is higher than anywhere else in the world,” McManus said. “So we need to get a handle on this and come up with agreements on who’s catching how much.”
Technically, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, surrounding countries are required to set up an intergovernmental RFMO for the South China Sea.
While there is an existing RFMO in Southeast Asia called the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, China isn’t a member.
Lagman said sovereignty disputes have the effect of fueling illegal or unregulated fishing. She said if one nation views fishing grounds as belonging to them under their law, and another nation believes the same, conflicts arise, largely because fishermen from one country may be forbidden from fishing in one spot due to local regulations, but fishermen from another country have no such restrictions.
“We are talking ‘war’ here, since livelihoods are at stake,” she said.
China, which has the world’s largest fishing fleet, claims most of the South China Sea for itself. But six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with China’s claims. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
That complicates the prospects of establishing an RFMO. But while McManus concedes it would be difficult to set one up with China’s participation, he says it’s not impossible.
In a sign that cooperation happens already, he pointed to the participation of China and Chinese scientists in workshops on fishery management in the South China Sea. Nor does he think China is censoring or withholding any scientific research on coral reefs and the ecology of the disputed waters, despite Beijing’s political stance.
“They (China) themselves will suffer as a nation quite a lot if these fishing stocks collapse,” McManus said. “So there’s a strong incentive, and it’s getting stronger over time, unfortunately at the expense of many stocks of fish.”