Political tensions deplete fish stocks, harming all the surrounding nations, writes Maxwell Downman
Territorial claims, competition over potential oil and gas reserves, and near-clashes among some of the most powerful air and naval forces on the planet: the South China Sea has seen them all. The strategic importance of a body of water through which over $5.3 trillion in international trade sails cannot be underestimated. But there is another source of conflict that attracts less attention – fish.
The South China Sea is arguably the world’s most important fishery. Though only 2.5 per cent of the Earth’s surface, it contains 12 per cent of the global catch, and over half of all fishing vessels worldwide operate in this comparatively small body of water. The surrounding countries rely heavily on the 16 million tonnes of fish pulled from its depths every year. But after years of free-for-all fishing, stocks are dwindling, and the collapse of the ecosystem threatens the food security and economies of the surrounding countries.
It is estimated that half of the fisheries in the South China Sea are fully exploited, a quarter are over-exploited and the final quarter have completely collapsed. Much of the sea has less than a tenth of the fish it contained a few decades ago. ‘What we’re looking at is potentially one of the world’s worst fisheries collapses ever,’ said John McManus, a marine ecologist at the Miami University who studies reefs in the region.
Despite the clear interest in preventing the complete collapse of the fisheries, international co-operation has been scarce. The South China Sea is stuck in a destructive cycle: the more catches decline, the greater the strategic competition. Without international co-operation, resources dwindle further and competition for what is left increases.
The impasse is perfectly illustrated by recent events. On May 1 China declared an early start to its annual fishing ban in the South China Sea. The three-and-a-half-month-long unilateral moratorium, normally beginning in July, was brought forward because fish are spawning earlier, owing to global warming and the decay of fishery resources.
Ostensibly the ban would have allowed fish stocks much-needed time to recover, but it ran into the inevitable opposition of other claimants in the South China Sea dispute. As expected, Vietnam announced the very next day that it would defy the moratorium, which violated its sovereignty and transgressed international law, according to a foreign ministry spokesman. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also expected to continue fishing. To comply with Beijing’s declaration would have been tantamount to accepting de facto Chinese control over the 90 per cent of the sea where China claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’.
A similar dispute occurred last autumn, when President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines declared the Scarborough Shoal a maritime sanctuary, with a general moratorium on fishing. The Chinese paid no attention. ‘States have a vested interest in purposely violating fishing laws of other states,’ noted Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative
The wrangling over fish is merely one facet of the struggle in the South China Sea, where the seven surrounding countries – Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – all have competing claims. Recent years have seen an escalation of tensions as countries, most notably China, have installed civilian and military installations on reclaimed land to assert their claims.
Coming months will no doubt be filled with the standoffs and stalemates between fishermen, coastguards and navies that have become the new normal in the South China Sea. All this underlies the growing environmental crises in the region, both driving the maritime dispute and obstructing any sustainable solution in the near future.
Competition over fishing began to intensify in the early 2000s, when Chinese coastal waters became depleted. A Chinese agriculture minister put it succinctly: there are simply ‘no fish’ left around China. Yet the country is the largest exporter of fish. Not only do its citizens consume just over a third of all the world’s fish every year, the World Bank estimates that Chinese fish consumption will increase by at least 20 per cent by 2030.
While Chinese fishermen were forced to search further afield, the government began to support them in an effort to bolster its maritime claims in the region. Beijing has increasingly blurred the lines between the military and the civilian – famously, in 2012 Chinese fishing vessels were used as bait during Beijing’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal. The PLA (Chinese) navy followed closely behind Chinese fisherman when they were interdicted by the Filipino coastguard.
Beijing has consolidated its coastguard, subsidised fuel, replaced wooden boats with steel-hulled trawlers, and provided military training, advanced GPS and communications technology to fisherman so they can stay in contact with the coastguard and PLA Navy further afield. Between 2011 and 2015 government fishing subsidies reached nearly $22 billion. All this has spurred on overfishing.
Increased competition has led to unsustainable fishing practices. Smaller fishing fleets, scared of competing with Chinese fisherman backed by the PLA navy, have resorted to overfishing in coastal waters. This in turn has led to the proliferation of illegal and destructive methods, such as dynamite fishing and cyanide fishing. It can take stocks up to 40 years to recover just 50 per cent after dynamite fishing, while cyanide fishing poisons surrounding coral, devastating fragile habitats. In recent years, a number of reefs have been permanently damaged by Chinese Giant Clam poaching, which requires trawlers to plough up the reefs. These practices are inching the sea closer to a full-blown crisis.
Since all the surrounding countries have a vested interest in preventing the complete collapse of the South China Sea fisheries, some resolution may be possible. Simple co-operative management would go a long way towards making the fisheries sustainable. Under one proposed sustainability plan, tuna and mackerel could recover 17-fold, and reef fish by up to 15 per cent by 2045.
The problem to date is that fishing has increasingly been identified with national sovereignty. Yet there is precedent for shelving the issue, and countries appear to be edging closer to a deal. In November Duterte indicated the Philippines was willing to ‘set aside negotiations on the issue of territorial ownership of Scarborough Shoal’ to enable ‘fishing and maritime co-operation’.
This year China has indicated that it hopes to conclude a code of conduct for the South China Sea with other claimants. Such a proposal was initially put forth in 1992, but apart from a non-binding declaration signed in 2002, little progress has been made until now. Although unlikely to solve the multifaceted maritime crisis, the code could easily agree measures to ensure the fisheries recover.
Agreement on such measures as the dates of fishing bans, enforced restrictions on unsustainable fishing practices, and established channels of communication between coastguards would go a long way to depoliticising fishing and allow the stocks time to recover. Whether this is possible, given the political tensions, is uncertain. But as it stands, fish will continue to disappear in a zero-sum game where no one wins and eventually everyone will starve.