Development, Environment & energy, Trade and industry, International relations, Law, Food & water, South China Sea | Asia, Southeast Asia

26 August 2016

Shared fisheries resources in the waters of the South China Sea are crucial to the social and economic survival of coastal communities, but poor collaboration on marine resource management threatens their future, write Allison Witter and Rashid Sumaila.

The recent award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which found China’s territorial claims over certain parts of the South China Sea to be unlawful, has the potential to influence the direction of fisheries policy in the region. It is critical that a coordinated, sustainable management approach now be the chosen path forward.

Bordered by 12 countries and territories, the South China Sea is rich in natural resources, and contributes 12 per cent of the global fishing catch. On the ground, these fisheries resources are crucial to sustaining coastal livelihoods, food security, and export trade, yet are highly threatened by intense fishing pressure and overexploitation, as well as coastal pollution and habitat modification.

Among other challenges, the effectiveness of fisheries management regimes in the region have been diminished by a lack of enforcement, low levels of compliance, and poor coordination between different nations and government bodies. This has essentially created a situation of open access to marine resources.

More on this: How the environment is paying the price for geopolitical manoeuvring

Illegal fishing is rampant, leading to a significant underestimation of fisheries catch levels in official statistics. Threats to the marine environment have been exacerbated by territorial claims, such as those spurring China’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, which has caused severe harm to the area’s coral reefs. Continued unsustainable management, combined with climate change impacts, will further erode the valuable resources of this important marine ecosystem, sparking significant food security, ecological sustainability and financial consequences, far beyond the shores of the South China Sea.

Moving toward sustainable fisheries management in the South China Sea will require cooperation and coordination. A 2010 assessment found that a 50 to 60 per cent overall reduction in the total fishing catch would be required for fish stocks in the Gulf of Thailand to recover. More broadly, a 2015 study by University of British Columbia researchers found that, in order to rebuild biomass to a healthy level, the hauls of all fishing fleets in the South China Sea would have to be substantially reduced. With individuals and firms from several nations fishing in the area, this will be no easy feat, and balancing marine conservation with the economic and food security benefits from fisheries will require regional collaboration.

There have been historical barriers to such cooperation, exemplified by the recent South China Sea Arbitration between the Philippines and China, which highlighted overlapping claims to sovereignty in the region. Following the Tribunal’s award, and its recognition of China’s violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and simultaneous harms to the marine environment, international attention on the resource conflicts of the region is likely to increase.

Despite its initial bullish response to the Tribunal, it is possible that China will, ultimately, be driven to cooperate on environmental and fisheries management in the South China Sea, if only as a symbolic gesture towards enhancing its diplomatic reputation.

At the same time, with China’s rejection of the arbitration process as well as the Tribunal’s award, and its continued military activities in the area, ongoing instability in the South China Sea remains likely. Beyond fish, there are other important resources in the area contributing to the conflict, which may trump incentives to protect fisheries resources. The South China Sea is rich in oil reserves, with an estimated reserve of 11 billion barrels of oil, and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (although, interestingly, these reserves are not concentrated in the contested areas). The region also represents an important marine transportation route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

More on this: What role can fish play in food security and nutrition?

Protecting the marine environment and fisheries resources of the South China Sea, therefore, is a wicked problem. With multiple nations bordering the region and competing uses within it, restricting fishing and implementing other marine conservation measures will inevitably produce winners and losers in the near term. This is especially pertinent in a region where 86 per cent of fishing vessels are small-scale, and where rapid economic development is taking place alongside persistent coastal poverty and marine resource degradation. To tackle this it is essential to not only prioritise the long-term advantages of protecting the region’s marine resources, but also to ensure that conservation measures are combined with socioeconomic policies.

Overall, status quo fishing in the South China Sea will inevitably lead to widespread fish stock depletion. The area’s marine resources have already been fished to 5 to 30 per cent of their 1950s levels, with certain populations set to decline a further 60 per cent within 30 years. This is bound to trigger huge losses ecologically, economically and for those whose food security rests upon the region’s fish protein.

The Philippines v. China decision has brought to the surface the many and varied difficulties that are present in the shared waters of the South China Sea. Only time will tell whether this provokes collaboration toward long-term, sustainable resource management, or continued conflicts and marine resource depletion in the region.

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Witter, Allison and Rashid Sumaila. 2016. "The Wicked Problem Beneath The Waves - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.