Aggressive fishing activities threaten South China Sea security, warrant attention
Overlapping territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) are contributing to continued overfishing and increased destruction of the environment, according to a new Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) study.
“Disputes over the islands, reefs and waters in the area have made effective fisheries management impossible even as a calamitous stock collapse threatens livelihoods around the region,” found study author Gregory Poling, director of CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam make competing sovereignty claims to various SCS territorial features. These nations and Indonesia also disagree over how the sea should be divided.
Overfishing has depleted 70 to 95 percent of SCS fish stocks since the 1950s, threatening fishers’ livelihoods and food security in the region. Catch rates have declined by 66 to 75 percent over the past 20 years, studies have revealed.
To assert their territorial and maritime claims, some states, and most notably the People’s Republic of China (PRC), actively encourage and even subsidize fishing in disputed waters, exacerbating the problem, according to media reports. The result: More than half of the fishing vessels in the world are estimated to operate in the SCS, which accounts for a disproportionate 12 percent of global fish catch, the CSIS report found.
The increased activity could also threaten regional security directly. “As they race to pull the last fish from the South China Sea, fishers stand at least as much chance of triggering a violent clash as do the region’s armed forces,” the report said. “And that has become even more likely as a significant number of fishing vessels in the area forgo fishing full-time to serve as a direct arm of the state through official maritime militia.”
The PRC’s maritime militia has emerged as the largest force in the Spratly Islands, the report said. “The numbers of militia vessels operating in the area on behalf of China is much larger and more persistent than is generally understood. Experts and policymakers focused on the South China Sea will need to devote a proportionate amount of their attention to these actors and the role they play in the area.”
Released in January 2019, the six-month-long study by CSIS and Vulcan Inc. analyzed the size and behavior of the region’s fishing vessels with available but previously unused technologies through Vulcan’s Skylight Maritime Initiative.
The number of fishing vehicles operating in the Spratly Islands is exponentially higher than reported by conventional methods such as an automatic identification system, which the region lacks, the study found. Researchers deployed tools — such as Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite boat-detection products, synthetic aperture radar and optical satellite imagery — to more accurately track the number and types of vessels. The study found a “massive presence of vessels in and around China’s outposts, particularly its two largest at Subi and Mischief Reefs” as well as a high concentration of vessels around Philippine-occupied Thitu Island about 12 nautical miles away. High-resolution satellite imagery revealed that Chinese fishing ships account for the majority of vessels in the Spratlys, and the numbers significantly increased in the past year, the report said. (Pictured: Chinese fishing vessels at Subi Reef on August 12, 2018).
Meanwhile, the PRC has accelerated the rate of decline of the region’s coral reefs on which fish depend. In the past five years, the combination of giant clam harvesting, dredging and artificial island building, mainly by the PRC, has severely damaged or destroyed over 160 square kilometers of reefs in the SCS. As it is, coral reefs had been declining by 16 percent per decade since the 1950s, studies reveal.
As a result of these dynamics, “fishers face a dire threat to their livelihoods and food security as the South China Sea fisheries teeter on the brink of collapse,” the report concluded. Some 3.7 million people are officially employed by the fisheries, but likely many more depend on the waters to earn a living.
“Improving the monitoring of these fleets will be critical if the claimants hope to save the South China Sea fisheries and reduce the frequency of unlooked-for incidents between vessels,” the study author concluded.