Years ago Christopher Tubo caught a 660-pound blue marlin in the South China Sea. The fishing was good there, he says. Tuna fishermen would come home from a trip with dozens of the high-value fish as well as a good haul of other species.
“Here there’s none of that,” he says, looking toward the Sulu Sea, the Philippine sea where he’s been fishing for the past four years. His two boats, traditional Filipino outriggers called bancas, float in the shallow water nearby, new coats of white paint drying in the sun.
Tubo is sitting on a wooden bench in front of his home, which perches on stilts above the bay. One of his four kids wraps an arm around his leg. Worn T-shirts and shorts flutter on clotheslines behind them.
Glancing over at his wife, Leah, and the other children, he says, “It’s just chance, whether or not we can feed our families now.”
Tubo lives in Puerto Princesa, a city of 255,000 on Palawan, a long finger of an island that faces the Sulu Sea and the Philippine archipelago to the east and the contested South China Sea to the west. He’s one of the nearly 320,000 fishermen in the Philippines who have traditionally made their livelihoods from the South China Sea—and one of a growing number who are now fishing in other waters because of increasing Chinese interference. Beginning around 2012, China adopted a more assertive posture in the sea’s long-running territorial dispute, building military installations on contested islands and increasingly using its coast guard to intimidate fishermen from other countries.
It was after a Chinese coast guard vessel attacked a friend’s fishing boat with water cannons that Christopher Tubo stopped fishing the South China Sea.
“One minute you’ll see an airplane, the next thing there’s a naval boat,” he says, describing how the Chinese attempt to keep fishermen from other countries out of the disputed area. “If we kept going over there, maybe we won’t be able to go home to our families.”
“As they see it, it’s theirs now, and Filipinos are forbidden,” says Henry Tesorio, an elected councilor for a fishing village in Puerto Princesa.
Vietnamese fishermen could say the same thing. Some 200 Vietnamese from the island of Ly Son, 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the mainland, reported being attacked by Chinese boats in 2015, according to local Vietnamese government officials.
Tubo’s decision not to fish in the South China Sea speaks to the rising tensions in the region, which are causing fierce competition for natural resources. Encompassing 1.4 million square miles (3.7 million square kilometers), the South China Sea is of critical economic, military, and environmental importance: $5.3 trillion in international trade plies its waters annually; in terms of biodiversity, it is thought of as the marine equivalent of the Amazon rain forest; and its fish provide food and jobs for millions in the 10 countries and territories that surround it.
Of those, seven—China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia—have competing claims to the sea’s waters and resources. So it’s understandable why all eyes have been focused on the political and military wrangling. If war broke out over these claims, it would pit two superpowers, China and the United States—a longtime Philippine ally and guarantor of freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean—against each other.
But another less publicized, also potentially disastrous, threat looms in the South China Sea: overfishing. This is one of the world’s most important fisheries, employing more than 3.7 million people and bringing in billions of dollars every year. But after decades of free-for-all fishing, dwindling stocks now threaten both the food security and economic growth of the rapidly developing nations that draw on them.
China argues that it has a right to almost the entire South China Sea because it says it has historically exercised jurisdiction in that area, which China delineates on maps with a U-shaped “nine-dash” line (see map). Every other disputant in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, bases its maritime claims on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement that defines maritime zones.
Opposing Beijing’s expansionist claims, in 2013 the Philippines brought a case against China before an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration—a forum for settling international disputes—in The Hague, Netherlands. China refused to participate. On July 12, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on almost all its claims, declaring that China forfeited the possibility of any historically based rights when it ratified the UN convention in 1996. China has vowed to ignore the ruling.
Competition for fish has exacerbated the dispute, and the dispute has intensified competition among fishermen, further depleting fish. Some parts of the South China Sea have less than a tenth of the stocks they had five decades ago. And high-value fish such as tuna and grouper are becoming scarcer.
“What we’re looking at is potentially one of the world’s worst fisheries collapses ever,” says John McManus, a marine biologist at the Rosenstiel School at the University of Miami who studies the region’s reefs. “We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of species that will collapse, and they’ll collapse relatively quickly, one after another.”
Fishermen on the Front Lines
As coastal waters are depleted, fishermen have been forced to venture farther offshore and into disputed waters to make a living. China has seized this as an opportunity to bolster its claims by aggressively supporting its fishermen. Beijing has consolidated the coast guard, militarized fishing fleets, and begun offering subsidies for bigger and better boats, water, and fuel. There’s even a special subsidy specifically for fishermen to fish in the contested Spratly Islands, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south.
“The only reason that smaller [Chinese] fishermen go out to the Spratlys is because they’re paid to do so,” says Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Center for Strategic Studies. This extra pressure has sped up the depletion of fish stocks, he says.
The Chinese have also been building artificial islands atop reefs in the Spratlys to support military installations there. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” says Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and maritime security at the National War College, in Washington, D.C. “China is trying to enforce its sovereignty through the construction of these islands and by denying other countries access to natural resources.”
Eugenio Bito-onon, Jr.—until recently the mayor of the Kalayaan municipality, which includes islands in the Spratlys—is an outspoken advocate for the Philippines’ claims. Bito-onon and I met in the island’s cramped satellite office in Puerto Princesa, where he had a gigantic map of the South China Sea marked up with his own handwritten labels and colored dots showing which countries claim which features.
He pulls up Google Earth on his laptop and finds Thitu, an island in the Spratlys known locally as Pag-asa, where about 200 Filipinos, including a small number of troops, live part-time, their presence demonstrating the Philippines’ claim to the island. Rice, clothing, soap, and other necessities must be brought in by boat or airlift, and two government-owned generators are the only source of electricity. Bito-onon points out just how close Chinese-claimed Subi Reef is to Thitu. So close, he says, that on a clear day residents can see it on the horizon.
Even closer, though, are Chinese fishing boats, which he says have fished the reefs empty. “For the past three years, [the Chinese] never leave,” Bito-onon says from behind his laptop, now displaying satellite imagery of reefs around Thitu. “Chinese fishing boats come and go, replacing each other,” he says, but there are never not boats within sight of the island.
Gilbert Elefane, the Filipino captain of a tuna boat based in the municipality of Quezon, on Palawan, says he now sees up to a hundred boats, many Chinese, on a single two-week fishing trip in the South China Sea. Just a few years ago, he says he’d have seen no more than 30.
Beijing has provided military training and sophisticated GPS and communications technology to its fishermen so they can call in the coast guard if they have a run-in with a foreign law enforcement vessel or alert the coast guard of the presence of fishermen from other countries.
In the face of China’s island building, Vietnam has done some small-scale land reclamation of its own in an attempt to bolster its capacity in the Spratlys. Its efforts, however, have been less destructive than China’s.
As long as the conflict in the South China Sea continues, it will be nearly impossible to regulate fishing.
When one country tries to protect its fishing grounds, tensions flare. In March, for instance, Indonesian maritime law enforcement officials arrested eight Chinese on charges of illegal fishing. The fishermen were less than three miles (five kilometers) from Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. The Natunas themselves are not in dispute, but the waters north of them, which are particularly rich in gas, have become a new flashpoint. Under international law they’re Indonesian, but they partially overlap with China’s nine-dash line claims, so China says it has a right to fish there.
When Indonesia’s vessel began towing the Chinese boat back to port, an armed Chinese coast guard ship appeared and began ramming the Chinese boat to break it free. The Indonesians were forced to let the boat go and retreat.
“It’s unclear whose laws you’re enforcing when you have seven overlapping sets of fisheries laws,” Poling says. “States have a vested interest in purposely violating fishing laws of other states.”
That’s because abiding by another country’s fishing law is tantamount to accepting that that country has jurisdiction over that region, which no country has been willing to do.
In 2012, a Philippine navy warship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, about 138 miles (220 kilometers) from the Philippine coast, on suspicion of illegal fishing and poaching rare corals, giant clams, and sharks. A Chinese coast guard ship interfered to prevent the arrests, forcing a standoff. After 10 weeks both sides agreed to withdraw, but once the Philippines left, China remained, effectively seizing control of the shoal.
As Filipino fishermen have seen their catches—and the fish themselves—getting smaller, they’ve increasingly been resorting to dangerous, illegal fishing methods. Blast fishing, which Filipinos call “bong bong” fishing, involves setting off homemade bombs underwater to kill dozens of fish at one time. Cyanide fishing, which involves squirting fish in the face with poison to stun them, is used to catch live reef fish to supply high-end live seafood restaurants in Hong Kong and other large Asian cities. Both practices kill coral and other fish, collateral damage that’s pushing the sea ever closer to an overfishing crisis.
Reefs Under Siege
China’s island building and giant clam poaching have caused most of them documented reef destruction in the South China Sea, an area totaling 62 square miles (163 square kilometers). Island building grinds up corals for use as foundation material, smothers reefs that become the base of islands, and creates sediment plumes that suffocate nearby reefs. Dredging to deepen ports also causes serious damage. And poaching of giant clams entails grinding up corals to loosen the shells from the reef.
“It’s quite possible we’re seeing a serious decline in about half of the reefs,” John McManus, the marine biologist, says. “That’s what I expect will happen, if it hasn’t happened already. It’s just total destruction.”
When a reef is destroyed, the ecosystem unravels. Reef fish lose their habitat, and pelagic fish such as tuna lose an important source of food. Furthermore, reefs in the South China Sea are connected. Fish larvae from one reef ride the current across the sea to repopulate another reef. If a reef disappears, so does that source of larvae, increasing the chance that local extirpations of fish species will be permanent.
McManus says that many of the damaged reefs will be able to recover in a decade or two—if the island building and destructive giant clam poaching stop. He champions the idea of a “peace park,” a kind of marine protected area where all countries would put a freeze on their claims and halt all activities, like island building, that bolster those claims.
Experts also say cooperative regional management could go a long way toward making the South China Sea fishery sustainable. It would require dramatic cutbacks in the number of fishing boats and restrictions on fishing methods such as the use of huge fishing vessels that use powerful lights at night to attract tuna. All this would in turn mean helping fishermen find other ways to earn a living.
Under a sustainable management plan, tuna and mackerel could recover 17-fold by 2045, Rashid Sumaila and William Cheung at the University of British Columbia predicted in a 2015 report. Reef fish would recover up to 15 percent, and the catch and value of reef fish would also increase. Sharks and groupers, which are also high-value fish, would make a comeback too.
But Poling, of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, questions whether such a plan will happen in time. “What that requires is setting aside the disputes,” he says. “It’s possible—it’s just not likely. In order to have a successful joint management system, the first step is to agree on what area you’re talking about.” With China clinging to its nine-dash line while other countries base their claims on international law, agreement just won’t be possible, he says.
As it now stands, the South China Sea’s most important resource—its fish—is disappearing, and countries are either passively standing by or actively encouraging their fishermen to take more.
Aurora Almendral contributed to this report.
Coming Tuesday: China’s giant clam poaching is decimating reefs in the South China Sea.
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