Fishing near the red line
Fishermen fear their thousands of years of tradition may slowly fade away due to overfishing and China’s illegal maritime expansion in the Spratly Islands.
This rough sea has long been disputed between neighboring countries, but the harvest of over 3,000 species of marine life has been challenged by China’s control over these waters, including ramming and sinking fishing boats in colorful traditional woods of Vietnam, climate change, destruction and pollution of coral reefs.
However, there is a lot of blame to be shed for the looming ecological crisis which is leading to a collapse of the fishery. During this pandemic, all regional fishermen seem to operate on the premise that there is lax maritime enforcement and a rollback in illegal fishing operations. Recent reports indicate that uncontrolled and illegal fishing has caused East Sea fish stocks to plummet by nearly 95 percent since the early 1950s. With dwindling fish stocks, fierce conflicts between Competing fishing nations have only succeeded in escalating the conflicts.
To be clear, China’s vast maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to place their steel-hulled paramilitary ships in waters at odds with other claimants in that area.
Chinese ships are seen at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea on March 27, 2021. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea / Document via Reuters
Chinese fishing and coastguard vessels continue to operate without authorization in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other nations, particularly those of Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. This is in direct violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which defines an EEZ as an area generally extending 200 nautical miles from the shore.
The fishing incomes and livelihoods of the more than 3.7 million people engaged in the fishing industry in the disputed waters are substantial. According to Seafood Source, Vietnam had almost $ 10.5 billion in seafood exports two years ago, up 23% from 2017 figures. Vietnamese seafood exporters and producers ( VASEP) estimate that the country also has one of the fastest growing fishing fleets in the world, growing from 40,000 in 1990 to nearly 108,500 in 2018.
Meanwhile, China, which shares a deep-rooted and complex history with Vietnam, is not only the world’s largest seafood exporter, but the country’s population also accounts for over a third of all seafood consumption. fish in the world. China’s global fishing fleet ranges from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing vessels, which is almost half of the world’s fishing activity.
If Vietnam and other countries in the region are to put in place a credible fisheries management regime capable of reducing fishing efforts to sustainable levels and eradicating the bulk of illegal fishing from its fleet, they all need to take action to target illegal operators both nationally and internationally. waters. This includes compliance with vessel monitoring systems that specify the placement location on board the vessel.
But it is not an easy task. Besides, no one really knows how much the fishing grounds have been exhausted or when the red line has been reached and the fish are no longer there. Marine biologists, oceanographers and policy experts agree that access to fish stocks can only lead to conflict. The facts underscore the perilous state: the South China Sea accounts for 12 percent of the world’s fish catch with more than 50 percent of the world’s fishing fleets operating in this region.
Geopolitics and the resulting nationalism continue to wreak havoc on the fragile ecosystem. The coral reefs responsible for the plankton that the fish eat have also declined by 17% due to the failure of all requesting countries to tackle giant clam harvesting, dredging and the construction of artificial islands.
Time is running out to put aside political and governance factors and broadly recognize the South China Sea as one of the global commons. The fisheries crisis can only be avoided if there is scientific cooperation and this includes the adoption of an agreed marine protected area in the shared commons.
Marine Protected Areas or MPAs are defined as “areas of the ocean designated to enhance the conservation of marine resources”.
Professor John McManus, a marine biologist and environmentalist at the University of Miami, understands that environmental security is shaping a new narrative about the ecological challenges of the South China Sea.
“Territorial disputes have led to the creation of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many islands. In view of the rapid proliferation of international peace parks in the world. Marine Peace Park ”, affirms the tireless scientist of scientific cooperation.
Policymakers would do well to learn a lesson or two from nature when considering how best to negotiate the complexity and myriad of sovereignty claims. The marriage of politics and science is essential to navigate these perilous geopolitical waters. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coastal and Marine Environment Working Group recognizes that the region faces enormous sustainability challenges in coastal ocean regions and shared. If a scientific approach is not adopted, transboundary conflicts in marine areas can and will escalate.
The encouraging news is that the Philippines and Vietnam recently announced the resumption of scientific cooperation in 2022. They first attempted bilateral joint marine surveys between 1996 and 2006, known as the Joint Oceanographic Research Expedition and Navy in the South China Sea (JOMSRE-SCS).
From recent conferences and webinars, there seems to be a growing chorus among Chinese and Vietnamese marine scientists who view the South China Sea as an ideal platform to promote regional cooperation. The tide lifts the ships of scientific research above the din of politics and claims of sovereignty.
The world knows that our oceans no longer offer an inexhaustible source of food and industrial or even pharmaceutical products. Sharing the ocean’s commons requires a better understanding of how we should use ocean resources responsibly and sustainably.
* James Borton, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins University, recently completed his latest book, “Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground”. The opinions are his.