By James Borton
The role of marine science and the emergence of China’s blue economy helped frame a new narrative on the South China Sea’s policy debate, as shown at a CSIS discussion on May 21 titled “The Convergence of Marine Science and Geopolitics in the South China Sea.” Two of the panelists John McManus from the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and Kathleen Walsh from the U.S. Naval War College agree that the South China Sea is not simply a sovereignty dispute but is likely to be recognized as one of the most significant environmental issues of the 21st century.
Food security and renewable fish resource challenges are fast becoming a hardscrabble reality for more than fishermen. With a dwindling fish catch in the region’s coastal areas, fishing state subsidies, overlapping claims of exclusive economic zones, and mega-commercial fishing trawlers competing in a multi-billion dollar industry, the decline of fish is one of the issues at the heart of this sea of troubles.
The United Nations Environmental Program confirms that the South China Sea accounts for as much as one tenth of global fish catch, and that China will represent 38 percent of global fish consumption by 2030. Overfishing and widespread damage to coral reefs necessitate a science-driven intervention to safeguard the stewardship of this vital sea.
The Spratly Islands’ immense biodiversity cannot be overlooked. The impact of continuous coastal development, escalating reclamation, and increased maritime traffic in the sea calls for marine scientists and policy strategists to study the sustainability of the biological seascape and to navigate the development of science diplomacy.
China’s piling of sand on atolls and rocks in the Spratlys has disrupted an already fragile marine ecosystem. The area, which hosts part of Southeast Asia’s most productive coral reef ecosystems, has long been known as a treasure trove of biological resources. Fish breed and replenish in these reefs and migrate across vast distances to and from littoral coasts as they follow plankton and other organisms in the water.
Coral reef specialist McManus expresses concern for the plight of the region’s hard and soft corals, parrotfish, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, groupers, and black-tipped reef sharks. Recent biological surveys in the region and even off China’s coast revealed that the losses of living coral reefs present a grim picture of environmental degradation and destruction.
The number of coral reef and fish species in these contested waters has declined precipitously to around 261 from 460 species, and the list of critically endangered species now includes Green turtles, giant clams, and Hawksbill turtles.
The prospect of a reef apocalypse in the South China Sea should weigh heavily on claimant countries, all of which need to rely on fish protein to feed a burgeoning population of roughly 1.9 billion people.
McManus points out that many of the coral reef fisheries along the coasts of the South China Sea have been heavily overfished, especially along the coasts of southern China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The evidence shows that harvests of adult fish have been in a steady and steep decline. He suggests that offshore reefs may be critical to preventing local extinctions of targeted fish species.
Since the mid-1980s, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines have upgraded their fisheries methods in the Spratly Islands to include the destructive use of large-scale explosives and cyanide fishing operations, which have rapidly depleted marine resources.
McManus and other scientists have advocated for marine protected areas for decades. Unfortunately, this environmental equivalent of a demilitarized zone, free of fishing and reclamation, accounts for only 3.5 percent of the ocean.
Asia has the world’s largest fishing fleets, representing nearly three million of the world’s four million fishing vessels. And most estimates show that this number is set to increase in coming years. China’s fleet of 70,000 fishing boats, the largest in the world, is increasingly flaunting what are the few international rules on fishing. With other claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam increasing their fishing fleets, it is no wonder that China has rolled out a “Blue Economy” plan.
Walsh’s scholarship on China’s rising “Blue Economy” reveals that most Chinese marine scientists are concerned about conservation and sustainability issues. After all, coral reefs that were once found off China’s own shores have shrunk by an astonishing 80 percent over the past 20 years. Pollution, overfishing, and coastal development are blamed for this environmental collapse.
In her examination of China’s marine, maritime, and naval sector ambitions, Walsh argues that China’s new maritime development programs could have a big impact on the United States and other countries. In her opinion, Chinese leaders may be looking at water resources—including coastal areas, rivers, lakes, and oceans—as their country’s next economic frontier. She said during the panel:
“Chinese leaders want to maximize these new economic opportunities while simultaneously ramping up environmental protection and conservation efforts to make sure the nation’s blue economy activities have a positive rather than a negative environmental impact.”
U.S. policymakers are only beginning to hear the myriad of environmental voices on the South China Sea, since China’s success or failure in developing a blue economy will have implications for the rest of the world.
The region’s fishermen are the primary sentinels and their message is now being heard in their own countries. The ocean is not limitless and neither is the marine world indestructible.
Mr. James Borton is a former correspondent/special Asia Pacific reporter for The Washington Times and editor of “The South China Sea: Challenges and Promises.” He was one of the panelists at the CSIS event, “The Convergence of Marine Science and Geopolitics in the South China Sea,” on May 21, 2015.