South China Sea stakeholders seek remedies to China’s land creation practices and failures to preserve biodiversity
From an environmental point of view, the South China Sea is an international treasure as home to one-third of the world’s marine diversity. Beyond the intense blue and green beauty of the waters, the region is a crucial pillar in the global ecosystem. The South China Sea provides food security to marine life and is a crucial source of daily protein for up to one-seventh of the globe’s population.
“Approximately 500 million people, excluding those in China itself, who inhabit countries that surround the South China Sea depend on fish caught in the region for their daily food intake,” said Dr. Alan Friedlander, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Friedlander and other scientists contend that all countries in the region, including Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, are guilty of overfishing in the South China Sea, fueling highly contested territorial disputes.“Oil and gas deposits are not that significant to be an issue; offshore fish stocks, on the other hand, are the issue,” said Dr. John McManus, professor of marine biology at the University of Miami.
The Chinese government is subsidizing fuel for 50,000 commercial fishing boats operating in the South China Sea including in and around the highly contested Spratly Island archipelago, according to McManus. “These fishing boats are also equipped with sophisticated communications equipment enabling the crews to summon assistance from the Chinese military or Coast Guard if they feel challenged by vessels carrying flags of some of the other countries that border the South China Sea,” he said.
“The number one rule is: Never subsidize a fishery,” McManus added, stating that such policies inevitably lead to overfishing in a given region.
Scientists estimate that overfishing has caused the number of high-level predators in the South China Sea to decline by 50 percent from 1960 to 2000. These species include grouper, snapper, jacks, tuna (six species), mackerel (several species) and sharks, which continue to be the primary focus of commercial fishing operations in the South China Sea.
“I believe that a conservative estimate would be one decade in terms of when we cross the point when irreversible damage is caused to marine life in the South China Sea if something is not done quickly to stop current levels of overfishing and damage to the coral reefs due to dredging and related activities,” said Friedlander.
Although several countries, including China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, maintain military outposts in the South China Sea, with Vietnam holding the largest number, it is China in recent years that has pursued the most aggressive strategy to occupy and transform submerged reefs and rocks (usually under water except at low tide) in the Spratly archipelago into military outposts for the sake of claiming additional territory in the region to expand a commercial fishing initiative that is unsustainable.
China, which has the largest fleet of dredgers in the world, has been pursuing a policy of dredging sand to increase the size of its outposts in the Spratly chain. Such practices are having devastating effects on the region’s coral reefs, which are home to an array of marine species believed to be five to seven times greater than found in Hawaii or the Caribbean.
“Reef crests are the key. They must be kept healthy because not only are they home to diverse marine life themselves, they also protect lagoons where fish and other species lay eggs. The lagoons act as incubators for fish larvae,” said McManus.
The region is home to a massive larvae bank that is the source of rich marine life and is being systematically destroyed through harmful practices, according to McManus and other marine biologists studying the sea.“All the countries that directly border the South China Sea have decimated fish stocks near their respective coastlines, forcing them to conduct fishing operations further offshore. What took us time to understand was that despite the massive amount of overfishing, why were we not seeing the disappearance of a wide variety of species in the region, and the answer is the larvae banks found on the reefs,” said McManus.
One country that has protected the reefs off its coast is Brunei, which has imposed strict bans on fishing near its offshore oil platforms.
Scientists say a mounting pile of evidence shows that the Chinese government is aggressively expanding the size of reefs and rocks that are usually submerged except at low tide in the Spratlys by dredging sand and using it to smother fragile coral reefs.
“We can see from Google Earth that the Chinese have created 12.82 square kilometers of fake islands and completely buried coral reefs in the process. Mischief Reef, for example, is entirely gone,” said McManus.
McManus said there are 20 more islands that show signs of dredging, with the Chinese government using its dredger fleet to obtain sand from neighboring islands.
“Sand is killing reefs around seven islands, and there are another 20 islands that are at risk,” said McManus. Once a reef crest is damaged, an island becomes more susceptible to erosion caused by waves generated during typhoon season. This, in turn, requires additional dredging to recover artificially created land lost during the course of a typhoon.
Scientists, government officials from the South China Sea region and international legal experts agree there are solutions to help prevent China from continuing the practice of killing reefs for the sake of claiming territory. However, the solutions require international consensus. “There are legal mechanisms that could be applied by countries in the South China Sea region to stop the current practices; the problem is that such mechanisms can only be applied if there is the political will to do so,” said Dr. Youna Lyons of the National University of Singapore Center for International Law.
Experts on the problem agree that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must take part of the initiative. However, some argue that China, although not a full-time member of ASEAN, is using its close economic ties to certain members to scuttle attempts to pass international agreements. “The ASEAN Forum must rule by consensus, and in the past, certain members such as Cambodia and Laos, which are very poor and indebted to China, have watered down attempts to approve collective rulings on issues concerning Chinese activities in the SCS,” said Dr. Edgardo Gomez, professor emeritus for marine biology at the University of Philippines Marine Science Institute.
There are voices in the international community who are calling for the implementation of legislation along the lines of the Antarctic Treaty for the South China Sea since the former is enforceable.
Government authorities in the South China Sea region who are concerned about fishing rights and territorial claims argue that there would be civil unrest if they denied their citizens the right to conduct commercial fishing activities in the South China Sea.“There must be a freeze on claims, and governments must relinquish the so-called tied hands approach through which they use the argument that unless they allow their people to continue fishing, there will be riots,” said McManus.
“There must also be a freeze on claim-supportive activities such as constructing post offices and other symbols of government presence that assist in providing governments with arguments for claiming a particular piece of land,” McManus added, arguing that China must take a lead in this.
Other measures that experts say should be adopted include joint resource management through a regional body that would coordinate a management committee. Offshore environmental management as well as offshore resources management should also be implemented through a multilaterally controlled set of bodies.
“China is the key. They must take the initiative as an emerging world leader to do something to turn this situation around. There is mounting domestic pressure within China to find a compromise to this set of problems,” said McManus.
McManus said that some of the impetus for change could come from China’s efforts to revive the maritime silk routes since at present 80 percent of China’s global trade passes through the South China Sea.
“China needs friends to make this happen, and the current mood in the South China Sea region is one of fear of conflict. For example, 80 percent of the population of the Philippines fear potential violence. The last thing anyone wants is for one side or the other to start attacking commercial vessels because of unresolved territorial disputes,” McManus said.
Philippine Environmental Efforts
Faced with the very real risk that fish stocks will disappear through overfishing and coral reef destruction, Philippine government authorities have undertaken a number of measures to ensure that the marine environment within their sovereign waters will be protected from further mismanagement.
“The Philippine authorities have implemented coral reef restoration projects to return damaged reefs to full productivity,” said Dr. Edgardo Gomez, professor emeritus for marine biology at the University of Philippines Marine Science Institute.
“Currently, there is a status study on damage caused to reefs underway and we should know the results, hopefully, within two years,” Gomez added.
The Philippines has been spearheading conservation efforts to preserve the region’s fisheries and aquatic resources, including reef systems. In 1998, for example, the Philippines reconstituted its Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
Asis Perez, BFAR director and Department of Agriculture undersecretary for fisheries attorney, stressed the significance of these resources because they provide livelihood for Philippine fishermen. Unabated destruction of coral reefs affects at least nine fishing municipalities along the country’s western seaboard. That is equivalent to more than 12,000 people who directly rely on fishing for income.
“We urge China to respect its international commitments and be mindful of millions of people, not only in the Philippines, who depend on these very important marine resources,” Perez said. “We cannot allow China’s reclamation activities and tolerance of environmentally harmful fishing practices to continue, as these endanger global food security and long-lasting biological diversity,” he explained.
In addition, BFAR has closed off access to specific fisheries where the number of fish species have dropped dramatically due to overfishing or where coral reefs were in danger of being harmed and larvae banks destroyed in the process. The fisheries will remain closed until marine life has adequate time to recuperate.
“The unfortunate thing is that we cannot conduct similar studies in the Spratly Islands because the Chinese authorities will not allow us access to the area. Whenever our scientific teams attempt to enter the area, they are met with Chinese naval or coast guard vessels who force them to turn back,” said Gomez.
The Chinese have destroyed at least 800 hectares of coral reefs from cementing or dredging operations, according to Gomez. He says that other reefs damaged by such practices could recover within 100 years.
“The problem is that we do not know the full extent of what has been damaged or destroyed,” Gomez said.
A study by Philippine researchers shows that China’s activities through March 2015 had already destroyed an area in the Spratlys, including portions of Fiery Cross and Gaven reefs, estimated at 311 hectares (see Figure 1). Gomez, who was named a national scientist of the Philippines in 2014, said the damage amounted to U.S. $108.9 million in annual economic losses to countries around the South China Sea, based on direct and indirect contributions of the ecosystem to human well-being, at U.S. $350,000 per hectare per year. He released the findings at an April 2015 news conference.
In addition to the construction of military bases in the West Philippine Sea, poaching of giant clam shells, corals and other marine species by Chinese fishing vessels has repeatedly caused damage to the area’s ecological balance, Gomez said. Illegally harvested shells are brought to mainland China, particularly to Hainan province, to be processed and sold as various coral crafts, shell bracelets, shell necklaces and mounted shell carvings. “Healthy coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea are very important not only to us but also to the productivity of neighboring marginal seas made possible through larval connectivity,” Gomez explained.
Previously, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs has called on China to stop its land creation activities in the West Philippine Sea, which not only compromises ecological balance but also “threaten peace and stability in the region.”
Traditionally, the Philippines relies on the South China Sea for 25 percent of its total fish production, however, in recent years the Chinese government has denied access to Philippine fishing operations in various fisheries located in the South China Sea.
“The Chinese authorities for the past two years have denied Philippine fishermen the right to catch fish on or near the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese naval and coast guard vessels have repelled Philippine fishing crews with high pressure fire hoses. Imagine being denied access to fishing grounds that they have fished in for generations,” said Gomez.
The Philippine government is legally challenging such access based on the conflict between its exclusive economic zone and China’s nine-dash line claims, a dispute that should be ruled on by a U.N. arbitration tribunal.
“Claimant countries should endeavour to resolve these territorial disputes through peaceful negotiations and consultations, and without resorting to force or threat of use of force in unilateral attempts to assert or enforce their claims, for the sake of maintaining peace, stability and security in the region,” said Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose.
China’s land creation “activities gossly violate the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [DOC]. …These activities cause irreparable damage to the marine environment and marine biodiversity of the region. The Philippines calls on China anew to heed calls from the region and international community to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities pursuant to Paragraph 5 of the DOC,” Jose added.
Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources
The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is the government agency responsible for the development, improvement, management and conservation of the country’s fisheries and aquatic resources.
- Conserve, protect and sustain the management of the country’s fishery and aquatic resources.
- Alleviate poverty and provide supplementary livelihood among municipal fishermen.
- Improve aquaculture productivity within ecological limit.
- Utilize optimally the offshore and deep-sea resources.
- Upgrade post-harvest technology.
Scientists Alarmed at Impact of China’s Land Creation on Coral Reefs
Concern is mounting among some scientists that China’s land creation and acquisition work in the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea has caused and continues to cause severe harm to one of the most important coral reef systems in Southeast Asia.
China’s use of dredged sand and coral to build artificial islands on seven reefs has also damaged reef systems beyond the outposts, meaning the affected area could be greater than first thought, several scientists who have studied satellite images of the Spratlys said.
Those concerns contrast with repeated official Chinese statements that Beijing is committed to protecting reefs and the broader marine environment in the South China Sea in keeping with its obligations under United Nations conventions.
John McManus, a prominent University of Miami marine biologist who has worked with Philippine scientists to research the South China Sea, told fellow experts in June 2015 that China’s land creation and acquisition “constitutes the most rapid rate of permanent loss of coral reef area in human history.”
Beyond the outposts, a wider area of reef had been destroyed by the dredging of sand from lagoons for use on the new islands and the dredging of shipping channels to access them, he wrote in an online oceanographic forum operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency.
McManus urged claimants to put aside their disputes and create a marine “peace park” to preserve what was left.
“I can’t help but use the phrase overused for forestry … they’ve paved paradise,” he said.
Most foreign criticism of China over its new islands has focused on the spike in tensions their creation has caused or the possible impact on freedom of navigation, especially since Beijing has said the outposts will have undefined military purposes.
Only the Philippines has publicly accused China of causing ecological damage. Manila said China’s land creation had caused annual economic losses of U.S. $281 million to regional coastal nations. Asked to respond to the scientists’ concerns, China’s Foreign Ministry pointed to a June 2015 statement from the State Oceanic Administration, the maritime regulator, which said numerous environmental protection measures were in place.
“Impact on coral reef ecology is localized, temporary, controllable and restorable,” the agency said.
It did not respond to a request for further comment.
Chinese dredgers in the Spratlys have added 2,000 acres (800 hectares or 8 square kilometers) of land since late 2013, U.S. officials said.
Other claimants, particularly Vietnam, have reclaimed land to support existing outposts or extend piers and runways but on a much smaller scale. The remaining claimants to the Spratlys waters are the Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
While the Spratly reefs are relatively small compared to major global reef systems, they are considered biologically diverse and could help propagate threatened coastal reefs with coral larvae and fish, scientists said.
They are also home to endangered sea creatures including giant clams, dugongs and several species of turtle.
In an April 2015 study for Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, marine science and law expert Youna Lyons found that beyond the seven reefs, other unoccupied shallow features had been dredged to provide building material for the nearby reclamations.
“Coral reefs that have been left untouched for centuries by virtue of their isolation are now gone,” Lyons wrote after research that included surveys of high-resolution satellite photographs.
Lyons, of the National University of Singapore, said she has since seen further evidence of Chinese-style dredging on reefs away from the land creations but wanted more detail on what was happening and who was behind it.
“The scale of the ongoing dredging of insular, uninhabited coral formations in the South China Sea is unprecedented in scale and nature in recent human history,” she said.
“Chinese dredgers appear to be responsible for massive destruction, but we don’t know how much destruction has been done, overall, and by the others before the current artificial island construction started.”
Chinese officials have said facilities on the islands would help environmental preservation, along with search and rescue and weather observation.
“No one cares more than China about the ecological preservation of relevant islands, reefs and sea areas,” Ouyang Yujing, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, told the Xinhua news agency in May 2015.
Equal importance had been given to “construction and protection,” he said, adding China would honor its obligations under the U.N. conventions on Biological Diversity and International Trade in Endangered Species.
One marine biologist, Terry Hughes of James Cook University in Queensland, said the land creation work was “locally devastating” but the Spratlys still might face bigger threats from long-term overfishing and climate change.
A study he produced with Chinese scientists in 2012 showed a steep decline in coral cover in the area due to such pressures, which are affecting reefs globally.
While Chinese construction was visually dramatic, some reefs were largely untouched, he added.
“Some of them are still in pretty good condition,” he said.