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A blueprint for fisheries management and environmental cooperation in the South China Sea

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This is the first product of the CSIS Expert Working Group on the South China Sea, which seeks to chart a feasible model for claimants to manage the maritime disputes. 

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The South China Sea is one of the world’s top five most productive fishing zones, accounting for about 12 percent of global fish catch in 2015. More than half of the fishing vessels in the world operate in these waters, employing around 3.7 million people, and likely many more engaged in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. But this vital marine ecosystem is seriously threatened by overfishing encouraged by government subsidies, harmful fishing practices, and, in recent years, large-scale clam harvesting and dredging for island construction.

Total fish stocks in the South China Sea have been depleted by 70-95 percent since the 1950s and catch rates have declined by 66-75 percent over the last 20 years. Giant clam harvesting, dredging, and artificial island building in recent years severely damaged or destroyed over 160 square kilometers, or about 40,000 acres, of coral reefs, which were already declining by 16 percent per decade. The entire South China Sea fishery, which officially employs around 3.7 million people and helps feed hundreds of millions, is now in danger of collapse unless claimants act urgently to arrest the decline.

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