While alarm bells are ringing over the potential the South China Sea dispute has to explode into violent conflict, casualties are already occurring. Due to the disputed status of the region, little can be done to enforce fishing practices and disputing countries are competing with each other leading to overfishing. A recent study shows that in the cases of some species, population’s are down to five percent of wat they were in the 1950s. With human populations rising and the need to supply food, overfishing will continue, even more so in an environment lacking cooperation between countries.
Overfishing in the South China Sea – Recent study
This past week, a study was released by the Fisheries Economics Research Unit of the University of British Columbia. At a press conference in Hong Kong, Rashid Sumaila, director of the program said simply “The South China Sea is…under threat from various sources. We need to do something.” He added “There are lots of peoples bordering the South China Sea…when you don’t cooperate, everybody races for the fish because the thinking is if you don’t catch the fish, someone else [from another country] will catch it.”
Some species have seen tremendous declines in recent years. Coral groupers and Napoleon wrasse in the past eight years alone have seen 80 percent population declines. Sumaila said “The most scary thing is the level of decline we have seen over the years. Some species [are facing] technically extinction or depletion.”
According to the report, if no action is taken, in three decades shrimp will be more than three times as expensive, tuna and mackerel will be nearly six times, and grouper will be almost nine times, as expensive. These numbers will have severe economic consequences if nothing is done as fish protein comprises more than 22 percent of the average Asian diet. If such fishing continues unabated, not only will prices rise of food that is essential for the region, but the livelihoods of tens of millions of people involved in the industry whether it be the actual fishing or the processing of caught seafood, are at risk of finding themselves without work.
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A Known Problem
Overfishing in East Asia is not a new problem and in the South China Sea, has been known for some time. The problem is multi-faceted. Fish are being caught too young limiting chances for population regrowth and replenishment of fish stocks. As a result, the fish that are being caught are smaller necessitating a greater haul thus reducing the population even further.
Certain fishing methods have also brought severe damage to the ecosystem in the South China Sea. Despite being banned by certain countries, cyanide poisoning, and bottom trawling continue to be used and in doing so, destroy fishing areas and ecosystems; in the case of bottom trawling, coral reef destruction. Enforcement against these practices is difficult when the region is in dispute and when one country seeks to gain an advantage over another. Furthermore, many trawlers and driftnet operators are foreign which further negatively impacts the situation.
The countries involved in the South China Sea also tend to encourage their fishing fleets to fish in the disputed waters. Why should one state take advantage of the ambiguous situation while others don’t? There have repeated reports of violent encounters at sea between fishermen of the disputing countries. This is particularly true of Vietnam and China. China has been placing bans on fishing in certain disputed waters with Vietnam under the veil of attempting to replenish fish stocks. Meanwhile, the tremendous size of China’s fishing fleet allows for a far greater catch than what Vietnam’s fleet is capable of. Aggressive actions by Chinese fishing boats backed up by Beijing directed maritime militia support serves to exacerbate the situation.
In mid-October, a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat without loss of life. President of Vietnam’s central Quang Ngai province’s Fisheries Association, Phan Huy Hoang said “Chinese actions against fishermen from Quang Ngai province have been more aggressive and brutal.” He also added that so far this year, over 20 Vietnamese fishing boats have been attacked by Chinese vessels. In July, it was reported that a Chinese warship rammed two Vietnamese fishing boats.
In South East Asia, fish is a vital component of local diets. In addition, it is also an important source of money in terms of seafood exports. Vietnam and China are among the world’s top five largest shrimp producers while the South China Sea is a major source of yellowfin tuna. In the region over 30 million people are involved in the fishing industry. The importance of the industry to local and national economies cannot be understated.
Because of this importance that fishing has in the region, both economically and as a vital source of sustenance, overfishing for the South China Sea should not be viewed as some minor ancillary problem of the principle dispute over sovereignty. Instead it should be seen and regarded as a major problem that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. The destruction of fisheries in the South China Sea negatively impacts each disputing country and the impact of it is already being felt regionally.
Unfortunately, attempts to rectify the situation by placing quotas on fishing and delineating maritime boundaries will require disputing countries to come together to the table and compromise, something which so far has failed to occur in any meaningful way. Any attempts at delineating maritime boundaries for fishing will automatically translate into attempts at delineating sovereign territory. Furthermore, the establishment of fishing quotas would be meaningless win the absence of objective enforcement which does not seem likely.
While the prospect of armed conflict garners the most attention over the South China Sea, the threat and effects of overfishing are real, and it has already taken its toll and will continue to.