Fisheries diplomacy and the South China Sea

Australia should step up to shore up the region's fisheries

Anthony Bergin

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

13 July 2017

The dynamiting of reefs, plus overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and the impacts of climate change are all having an impact on fish stocks in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Anthony Bergin takes a look at what Australia could do about it.

China’s island-building in the South China Sea may be the focus of the world’s attention in the region, but what’s happening beneath the waves deserves as much scrutiny and international action. It’s action where Australia could play a significant role.

Recently on Policy Forum, Marina Tsirbas put forward a concise and well-argued perspective on the valuable fishery resources of the South China Sea, highlighting the failure of the individual sovereignty-based approach to preserving fish sustainability.

Discussions about seriously over-exploited regional fish stocks can often lead to a higher level interaction on broadly related political issues, so in the contested waters of the South China Sea proposals to strengthen fisheries cooperation potentially offer helpful ideas for maritime confidence-building measures.

More on this: Marina Tsirbas | Saving the South China Sea fishery

The piece proposed that Australia and other like-minded states encourage key Southeast Asian states and China to look at establishing a regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) in the area that would include export destination states, fishing states and relevant coastal nations.

As fish don’t respect boundaries, she suggested that the area of the regional fisheries management body may need to go beyond the South China Sea and encompass the Southeast Asian region.

The example Marina put forward is an RFMO similar to the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), an international fisheries management body that seeks to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks such as tunas, billfish and marlin in the western and central Pacific. But while the western boundary of the WCPFC notionally extends to the East Asian seaboard, the convention area doesn’t include the South China Sea.

I’d note here the existence of the long-standing Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC). APFIC was originally established as the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council in 1948 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

It acts as a regional consultative forum in partnership with other regional organisations and arrangements and members. Its role, however, is advisory and information sharing on fisheries. It’s not a fisheries management body, and not the way to manage a major international waters area with significant disputes over fisheries.

Suggesting an RMFO fulfil this role is an interesting approach to influencing the current stalemate of resource access and use in the South China Sea region.

However, such an intervention will only work if it’s led by individuals wise in the challenges of international fisheries management, who are respected for fairness and integrity by the key stakeholders and well known in the region.

Such individuals are a rare commodity.

Australia could potentially play the role of ‘honest broker’ and lead an intervention geared to building an RFMO for the South China Sea, particularly as the country doesn’t have a fishing history or direct fishing interests in the region.

But such an intervention would only succeed if it’s supported by the key parties involved. Any support would need to evolve from discussions and not forced through in any heavy-handed approach.

More on this: Stop blaming China for the state of the world’s fishing stocks

One problem for any RFMO would be Taiwan’s membership. The South China Sea is a traditional fishing ground for Taiwan and hundreds of Taiwanese vessels operate there. The RFMO would have to be outside the UN framework, which includes FAO. Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) is a member, but not a contracting party, to the WCPFC. It has membership of the South Pacific Regional Management Organisation, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, but these are all outside the UN/FAO framework. It also has a limited role at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, but this too is outside FAO/UN.

In Marina’s full paper and article, she suggested an appropriate forum in which to raise the issue of an RFMO for the South China Sea are upcoming ASEAN summits, including the special ASEAN summit that Australia will host next March.

I’d add that it might be raised in Port Moresby next year at APEC. As an archipelagic country, Papua New Guinea is keen to promote ocean issues at APEC, including the blue economy, and all relevant parties involved in the South China Sea are members of APEC.

The piece also made a useful call for civil society groups to highlight marine environment destruction and fisheries stock depletion in the South China Sea.

I couldn’t agree more, but I’d note the deafening silence from the environmental movement when it comes to condemning destructive fisheries practices and coral reef reclamation in the region.

It’s surprising we haven’t seen environmental groups mounting the kind of protests in the South China Sea that we saw a few years ago against Arctic oil exploration or some years ago on driftnet fishing in the Pacific.

Maybe it’s a concern by such groups that, given the highly charged politics of the South China Sea, pushing too hard on fisheries issues may open them up to the charge that they’re being used as proxies by the US and its allies.

Or maybe it’s because in the South China Sea there aren’t images of polar bears stranded on melting ice, birds covered in oil or turtles caught in fishing nets.

More on this: The destruction beneath the waves of the South China Sea

Whatever the reason, the marine environmental damage and the hammering of fish stocks in the South China Sea should be considered as disturbing as the increasing militarisation of the region.

It warrants greater attention by civil society groups, even if this does risk some fishing countries, particularly China (which has used some of its fishing vessels as proxies to establish a degree of control around disputed features), perceiving such action as politicised or even hostile.

Finally, I agree with the suggestion that Australia should become more engaged in the fisheries issues of the South China Sea. The country is well placed to help in capacity building, fisheries science, maritime surveillance and enforcement, and facilitating regional strategic discussions about sustainable returns from the use of fisheries resources.

Building on Australia’s strengths in fisheries management will enhance the performance of any RFMO that may be established for the South China Sea, especially in facing issues such as overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and the impacts of climate variability and change on fish stocks.

Australia’s engagement with China on fishery matters should include an exchange of technical knowledge, skills and best practices to support better fisheries management. The country’s leaders should work to include fisheries matters on the agenda of the annual Australia–China High-Level Dialogue.

While it’s not well recognised, Australian fisheries engagement in the Indo–Pacific should be a key component of our economic, diplomatic and security investments. It’s not just about fish.

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One Response

  1. Meryl Williams says:

    I explored the question of regional fisheries agencies in Southeast Asia a few years ago (Williams 2013), specifically looking at SEAFDEC as the fisheries technical arm of ASEAN, the Coral Triangle Initiative and the RPOA-IUU. Establishing a regional fisheries management organisation seems still a distant possibility. The existing regional fisheries bodies are technical in nature, and made up of different mixes of country members. The serious bilateral disputes between the region’s countries, unresolved border issues and the complexity of the fisheries issues are impediments to a regional RFMO, which anyway may not be the best solution to the regions fisheries problems. To quote what I said and which still applies: “Major obstacles to a regional fisheries solution include the size, extent and complexity of the fisheries concerned and the fact that negotiations would involve more than twenty interested states, among which unresolved political issues, including disputes over maritime borders, exist,”

    Williams, Meryl J. “Will new multilateral arrangements help Southeast Asian states solve illegal fishing?.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 35.2 (2013): 258-283.

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