South China Sea Fish Stocks Plummeting: Scientist Warns ‘Mass Starvation’

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South China Sea fish stocks put in jeopardy by China’s island building projects, is not a matter of economics but of starvation. Professor John McManus of the National Center for Coral Reef Research at the University of Miami, has called on China and other countries in the South China Sea to get past their disputes and declare the region an international protected zone like Antarctica. According to L.A. Times, he issued the following statement to a panel organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on July 12, 2016.

“If we don’t do this, we are headed toward a major, major fisheries collapse in a part of the world where [that] will lead to mass starvation.”

The Diplomat delineates the “starvation factor” when it comes to fish stocks affecting the South China Sea claimants. There are an estimated 1.5 million traditional fishermen in the Philippines where the industry accounts for 2.7 percent of the national GDP, with three-fourths of the total fishing production from the contested region. About 35.3 percent of all animal proteins consumed in Vietnam comes from fish, higher in the Philippines at 42.6 percent and even higher in Indonesia at 57.3 percent.

According to The Wall Street Journal, University of British Columbia researchers estimate that South China Sea fish exports grew to 27 percent of global fish exports in 2011 from about 11 percent in the 1980s, topping at least $22 billion a year. The research forecasts a possible decline of fish stocks by up to 59 percent in the next 20 years if governments don’t discourage overfishing.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled on July 12 that China’s claims to historic and economic rights in most of the South China Sea have no legal basis, favoring five governments whose claims in the sea overlap with Beijing’s. The end result is that various claimants’ fishing fleets have staked claims to reefs, rocks and other maritime features.

Fishermen moving farther into disputed waters often subsidize the purchase of new boats or more advanced navigational equipment to reinforce their claim to prime fishing grounds. Staking out vast swaths of ocean, China controls fishing fleets of far greater numbers and technological superiority than smaller claimants the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Though it does not have rival territorial claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, Indonesia has blown up hundreds of foreign boats that it said were illegally fishing. Vietnamese and Chinese coast guards and fishing fleets ram each other routinely in their scramble for fishing grounds.

A National Geographic report features the dilemma of Gilbert Elefane, the Filipino captain of a tuna boat based in the municipality of Quezon, on Palawan. His complaint is about having to make do with the leavings of up to a hundred boats, many Chinese, on a single two-week fishing trip in the South China Sea. Only a few years ago, he’d seen no more than 30 tops on a similar run.

Chinese fishermen have the advantage of military training and sophisticated GPS and communications technology from Beijing, enabling them to call in the coast guard if they have a run-in with a foreign law enforcement vessel. They can also alert the coast guard of the presence of fishermen from other claimant nations.

What motivates China is the fact that fish is increasingly important to the Chinese diet. According to The Diplomat, China’s fish consumption grew annually at 6 percent between 1990 and 2010, with Chinese gobbling 34 percent of the global fish food supply, nearly triple that of Europe and Central Asia combined, and over five times the amount of North America. With China’s fish consumption estimated to increase more than double the projected global average, the growing demand threatens to outstrip supply, necessitating ongoing expansion of maritime fishing operations into the South China Sea.

With a starvation crisis imminent, China would have to stop its island-building that’s decimating fish stocks. University of South Florida professor Frank E. Muller-Karger explained this urgency to the New York Times recently.

“Where do people get that sand and gravel to build new islands? It’s taken from nearby lagoons and reef flats, damaging their ecosystems too. The sand and silt billow up, which damages coral tissue and blocks life-giving sunlight from reaching the corals. The sand and gravel put atop artificial islands can wash back into the sea, forming plumes that can smother marine life and could be laced with heavy metals, oil and other chemicals from the ships and shore facilities being built.”

On May 16, 2016, newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appealed to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua for China to allow Filipinos to continue fishing around the contested Scarborough Shoal, as they’ve done for ages. Informed that his request was granted, Duterte issued the following statement as reported by GMA News.

“Then I would like to thank China for understanding the plight of the Filipino.”

All claimant countries would be better served if they got their heads together and agreed to follow a suggestion put forth by Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court. Carpio has repeatedly asked China to partner up with the Philippines in declaring the South China Sea a sanctuary for fish and part of the global commons.

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