Environment & energy, Food & water, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

30 July 2016

Urgent action must be taken to prevent further damage to the South China Sea’s valuable marine environment, Michael Fabinyi writes.

While the geopolitical effects of the South China Sea dispute have dominated much recent commentary, the impacts on the marine environment are also substantial. The dispute has generated a range of negative environmental consequences: from high-profile reef damage caused by island-building activities in the Spratly Islands; to fishing for giant clams that is linked to the Chinese government’s support of fishing in the area; to contributing to the failure to govern overfishing more generally in the South China Sea.

The marine resources of the South China Sea are of exceptional economic value and biological importance. According to the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, reported landings in the South China Sea comprise about 12 per cent of the total global fishery catch. Key for trade, the landed value of the catch in 2012 was estimated at US$21.8 billion. The Spratly Islands in particular are a major spawning site for many fish that eventually end up in coastal areas. These marine resources are central to the economies of numerous developing countries that lie alongside the South China Sea, the livelihoods of many of their coastal residents, and important as a source of cheap and nutritious food.

Island-building has been the most spectacular recent development to have had direct impacts on the environment. These activities damage and destroy coral reefs. Although many of the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute have built structures on various reefs and atolls, between late 2013 and 2015 China escalated this practice rapidly, and built close to 1300 ha of artificial islands on seven coral reefs in the Spratly Islands.

Furthermore, another current practice that is even more damaging to coral reefs than the island building itself is fishing for giant clams. Fishers use boat propellers to obtain the clams, destroying the reefs in the process. The clams are then traded to China where demand has spiked in recent years, in part due to the crackdown on the ivory trade.

More on this: South China Sea: why aid will trump islands | Rosita Dellios

A recent assessment found that while island-building has destroyed 55 square kilometres of coral reefs, the methods used to catch giant clams have destroyed almost double that amount, 104km2 of coral reefs. The trade in clam shells is linked to the heavy promotion by the Chinese government of fishing in the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping visited the epicentre of giant clam trading, the fishing town of Tanmen in Hainan province, in April 2013, encouraging fishers to fish in the South China Sea. The government has also provided significant financial support and even basic military training to these fishers.

Compounding these specific examples of environmental damage, the dispute has strongly diminished the ability of governments to work together to manage the marine resources across the South China Sea. According to a report from 2012, the majority of assessed stocks or species in the South China Sea are fully fished or overfished. Another recent report suggests that the marine resources of the South China Sea have been fished down to between five and 30 per cent of 1950s levels. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by fishers from all countries is widespread, ranging from the smuggling of high-value species such as turtles and live reef food fish, to the capture of large quantities of pelagic fish. By preventing governments from cooperating in the area, the South China Sea dispute has been a significant contributor to the current gloomy status of the South China Sea marine resources.

Some scientists have called for the environment to be used as a way of freezing the dispute, via the creation of a Spratly Island Peace Park and an agreement modelled on the Antarctic Treaty. However, in the absence of moves towards these goals by major players in the dispute, there are other actions that can be taken immediately. As WWF’s Geoffrey Muldoon argues in a recent opinion piece, a range of measures such as improved mechanisms for traceability, the development of aquaculture, and a greater policy focus on domestic seafood supply chains will all be key to improving the status of the South China Sea’s marine resources.

Although the dispute has certainly hindered possibilities for improved governance, and the significant damage that has been done to the coral reefs of the Spratly Islands is likely permanent, there is still much that can be done right now to improve governance of the South China Sea’s marine resources.

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Fabinyi, Michael. 2016. "The Destruction Beneath The Waves Of The South China Sea - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/destruction-beneath-waves-south-china-sea/.