Science and Geopolitics Converging in the Troubled Waters of the South China Sea

Science and Geopolitics Converging in the Troubled Waters of the South China Sea


Marine science and geopolitics are converging more than ever in the South China Sea, according to a story written by James Borton and published in the Geopolitical Monitor 8 April 2015.

The article states that fishermen, scientists, and policy experts in the region agree that a catastrophic marine biodiversity and fishery collapse is imminent if unsustainable fishing practices continue and environmental protection measures are not adopted.

A satellite image from 16 March shows work on an emerging artificial island at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. (Photo by: Center for Strategic and International Studies, via Digital Globe)

A satellite image from 16 March shows work on an emerging artificial island at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. (Photo by: Center for Strategic and International Studies, via Digital Globe)

The South China Sea remains at the epicenter of one of the most volatile maritime areas in the world, with little or no agreement on sovereignty claims to the ownership of atolls, submerged banks, islands, reefs and rocks.

Beijing’s accelerated land reclamation over these specks of rock in the roiling sea is increasing friction among other claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines. Moreover, the Chinese-directed Spratly Island building expansion on the Johnson, Cuarteron, and Gaven reefs wrecks rich fishing grounds and valuable coral reefs in the archipelago.

The food security and renewable fish resource challenges are clear. According to a World Bank Fisheries Outlook, “Fish to 2030: Prospects for Fisheries and Aquaculture,” China will increasingly influence the global fish markets.

A baseline model projects that China will account for 38 percent of global fish consumption by 2030.3The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) confirms that the South China Sea accounts for as much as one tenth of global fish catches. A clear trend is emerging: overfishing and widespread destruction of coral reefs.

Marine scientists express concern for the plight of the region’s hard and soft corals, parrot fish, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, groupers, and black-tipped reef sharks. From Vietnam’s coastal areas to Hainan Island, the region has a 60 percent coral life and 50 percent fish species decline respectively. El Nino (2008) caused short-term increases in water temperature, resulting in widespread coral bleaching and death of precious coral formations.

The exhaustion of fish stocks belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines are a direct violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A perfect storm is swiftly blowing across the region, like a fast moving typhoon. The litany of intractable issues mount daily: global warming, destruction of reefs, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, advancing technology, an increase in the number of state-of–the- art fishing boats, unregulated fisheries, and population growth.

Bill Hayton’s The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia asserts that overfishing remains one of the major issues that must be addressed in the region since China encourages its fishermen to trawl through contested waters. “During the 2012 (fishing) ban, the Hainan Province Department of Ocean and Fisheries organized the largest-ever Chinese fishing fleet to reach the (Spratly) islands: 30 vessels including a 3,000 ton supply ship.”

Since 1985, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines have included large-scale explosive and cyanide fishing operations in the Spratlys. Marine biologists estimate that fishing will need to drop by 50 percent to sustain target species.

Where are the regulatory bodies to sanction all trawlers, purse seines, gill nets, drift nets, castnets, beach seines, surface long lines, bottom long lines, trolling lines, hook and lines, fish pots and destructive fishing practices like using cyanide and dynamite?

Advocates for Marine Peace Parks, (MPAs) vital sanctuaries safe from oil and gas exploration, mining, and assorted commercial fishing nets, agree there is a history of South China Sea marine science cooperation.

“In some cases, it might be easier to set-up informal international activities by sponsoring participation in scientific and conservation research by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that can affect protection with seasonal and zonal restrictions,” claims John McManus, biologist and director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research (NCORE).

There are recent historical markers for such cooperative scientific research efforts. For example, the intergovernmental, multinational Coral Triangle Initiative (2009) encompasses Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. In this area hosting more than 600 species of coral, 3,000 fish species, and the world’s largest mangroves, this initiative enables regular marine science dialogue and effective political cooperation despite its non-legal character.

Last year’s Global Oceans Action Summit for Food Security and Blue Growth, held in The Hague, brought together global leaders, ocean practitioners, scientists, NGOs, and international agencies like the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and others. They acknowledged that 3 billion people currently depend on fish for twenty percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein. Also, between 660-820 million livelihoods or almost 12 percent of the world’s population are dependent on fisheries.

The challenges are hard to ignore: how to feed over 9 billion people by 2050, in the face of climate change, increased competition for marine resources, overfishing, habitat change and coastal pollution. The problems warrant faster solutions.

Why not call for a South China Sea environmental summit; a collaborative strategy established by a joint South China Sea Marine Blue Commission made up of marine scientists and policy shapers to address trans-boundary issues, to create regional fishery bodies, to promote designated marine reserves, especially in the Spratlys, and to encourage citizens to petition their governments to adopt the necessary marine conservation practices now before it is too late.

Put simply, perhaps this message from John Gruver of the United Catcher Boats Association is what the South China Sea fishermen need to practice: “The fisherman of the future isn’t going to be measured by the fish he does catch, but by the fish he doesn’t catch.”

(Story courtesy of the Geopolitical Monitor. Read original version by James Borton.)

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