13 - 8 - 2020 | 7:02
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Fishing, not oil, is at the heart of the South China Sea dispute

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Contrary to the view that the South China Sea disputes are driven by a regional hunger for seabed energy resources, the real and immediate prizes at stake are the region’s fisheries and marine environments that support them.

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It is also through the fisheries dimensions to the conflict that the repercussions of the recent ruling of the arbitration tribunal in the Philippines-China case are likely to be most acutely felt.

It seems that oil is sexier than fish, or at least the lure of seabed energy resources has a more powerful motivating effect on policymakers, commentators and the media alike. However, the resources really at stake are the fisheries of the South China Sea and the marine environment that sustains them.

The real resource at stake

For a relatively small (around 3 million square kilometres) patch of the oceans, the South China Sea delivers an astonishing abundance of fish. The area is home to at least 3,365 known species of marine fishes, and in 2012, an estimated 12% of the world’s total fishing catch, worth US$21.8 billion, came from this region.

These living resources are worth more than money; they are fundamental to the food security of coastal populations numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Indeed, a recent study showed that the countries fringing the South China Sea are among the most reliant in the world on fish as source of nutrients. This makes their populations especially susceptible to malnutrition as fish catches decline.

These fisheries also employ at least 3.7 million people (almost certainly an underestimate given the level of unreported and illegal fishing in the region).

This is arguably one of the most important services the South China Sea fisheries provide to the global community – keeping nearly 4 million young global citizens busy, who would otherwise have few employment options.

But these vital resources are under enormous pressure.

A disaster in the making

The South China Sea’s fisheries are seriously over-exploited.

Last year, two of us contributed to a report finding that 55% of global marine fishing vessels operate in the South China Sea. We also found that fish stocks have declined 70% to 95% since the 1950s.

Over the past 30 years, the number of fish caught each hour has declined by a third, meaning fishers are putting in more effort for less fish.

This has been accelerated by destructive fishing practices such as the use of dynamite and cyanide on reefs, coupled with artificial island-building. The coral reefs of the South China Sea have been declining at a rate of 16% per decade.

Even so, the total amount of fish caught has increased. But the proportion of large species has declined while the proportion of smaller species and juvenile fish has increased. This has disastrous implications for the future of fishing in the South China Sea.

We found that, by 2045, under business as usual, each of the species groups studied would suffer stock decreases of a further 9% to 59%.

The ‘maritime militia’

Access to these fisheries is an enduring concern for nations surrounding the South China Sea, and fishing incidents play an enduring role in the dispute.

Chinese/Taiwanese fishing fleets dominate the South China Sea by numbers. This is due to the insatiable domestic demand for fish coupled with heavy state subsidies to enable Chinese fishers build larger vessels with longer range.

Competition between rival fishing fleets for a dwindling resource in a region of overlapping maritime claims inevitably leads to fisheries conflicts. Fishing boats have been apprehended for alleged illegal fishing leading to incidents between rival patrol boats on the water, such as the one in March 2016 between Chinese and Indonesian vessels.

Fishing boats are not just used to catch fish. Fishing vessels have long been used as proxies to assert maritime claims.

China’s fishing fleets have been characterised as a “maritime militia” in this context. Numerous incidents have involved Chinese fishing vessels operating (just) within China’s so-called nine-dashed line claim but in close proximity to other coastal states in areas they consider to be part of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

The Chinese Coast Guard has increasingly played an important role in providing logistical support such as refueling as well as intervening to protect Chinese vessels from arrest by the maritime enforcement efforts of other South China Sea coastal states.

 

 

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Read more at The Conversation

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