Fishing near the red line

December 26, 2021 | 05:09 pm PT
James Borton Researcher
Frigate mackerel, red soldier fish, yellow fin and bigeye tuna are no longer jumping as they once did in Vietnam’s East Sea.

There's fear among fishermen that their thousands of years of tradition are quietly slipping away due to overfishing and China's unlawful maritime expansion in the Spratly Islands.

This churning sea has long been contested among neighboring countries, but the harvesting of the once more than 3,000 species of marine life has been challenged by China's control of these waters, including the ramming and sinking of Vietnam's colorful traditional wooden fishing vessels, climate change, coral reef destruction and pollution.

However there's plenty of blame to spread around for the pending ecological crisis that is leading to a fishery collapse. During this pandemic, all regional fishermen appear to be operating from the premise that there's lax maritime enforcement and backslide into illegal fishing operations. Recent reports indicate that out of control and illegal fishing has caused fish stocks in the East Sea to plunge almost 95 percent since the early 1950s. With the declining fish stocks, fierce disputes among competing fishing nations have only succeeded in inflaming the disputes.

To be clear, China's expansive maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to place their paramilitary steel-hulled vessels in waters at odds with other claimants in this area.

Chinese vessels are seen at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, March 27, 2021. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters.

Chinese vessels are seen at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, March 27, 2021. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters

Chinese fishing and coast guard boats continue to operate without permission in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of other nations, especially those of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This is in direct violation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that defines an EEZ as an area generally extending 200 nautical miles from shore.

A lot is at stake in fishery revenues and livelihoods for more than 3.7 million people engaged in the fishing industry in the contested waters. According to Seafood Source, Vietnam had almost $10.5 billion in exports from seafood products two years ago, up by 23 percent compared to 2017 figures. Vietnam Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) believes that the country also has one of the fastest growing fishing fleets in the world increasing from 40,000 in 1990 to nearly 108,500 in 2018.

Meanwhile, China, who shares a deeply rooted and complex history with Vietnam, is not only the world's largest seafood exporter, but the nation's population also accounts for more than a third of all fish consumption worldwide. China's global fishing fleet range anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats, representing nearly half of the world's fishing activity.

If Vietnam and others in the region are to deliver a credible fisheries management regime, that can return fishing efforts to sustainable levels and eradicate the bulk of illegal fishing by its fleet, they must all take steps to target the illegal operators in both domestic and international waters. This includes compliance with vessel monitoring systems that specify the placement location on board the vessel.

But this is not an easy task. For that matter, no one really knows how badly the fishing grounds have been depleted 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 global fish catch with more that 50 percent of the world's fishing fleets operating in this region.

Geopolitics and the ensuing nationalism continue to wreck havoc on the fragile ecosystem. Coral reefs responsible for plankton for fish to feed on have also shrunk by as much as 17 percent because of a failure among all claimant nations to address giant clam harvesting, dredging and artificial island building.

Time is running out to set aside political and governance factors and to widely acknowledge that the South China Sea is a part of the global commons. The fishing crisis can only be averted if there's science cooperation and that includes the adoption of agreed upon marine protected area in the shared commons.

Marine protected areas or MPAs are defined as "areas of the ocean designated to enhance conservation of marine resources."

Professor John McManus, marine biologist and ecologist at the University of Miami, understands that environmental security is shaping a new narrative about the South China Sea ecological challenges.

"Territorial disputes have led to the establishment of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many of the islands. Given the rapid proliferation of international peace parks around the world. It is time to take positive steps toward the establishment of a Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park," claims the tireless scientist for science cooperation.

Policymakers may do well to take a lesson or two from nature as they examine how best to negotiate the complex and myriad of sovereignty claims. The marriage of policy and science is essential to navigating these perilous geopolitical waters. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment recognizes that the region faces enormous challenges to sustainability in coastal and shared ocean regions. Unless a scientific approach is adopted, trans-boundary conflicts in marine areas can and will get worse.

The encouraging news is that the Philippines and Vietnam have recently announced the resumption of scientific cooperation in 2022. They first attempted bilateral joint marine surveys between 1996 and 2006, known as Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMSRE-SCS).

From recent conferences and webinars, there appears to be a rising chorus among Chinese and Vietnamese marine scientists who view the South China Sea as an ideal platform for promoting regional cooperation. The tide is lifting science-research survey vessels above the din of politics and sovereignty claims.

The world knows that our oceans no longer offer up an inexhaustible source of food and industrial or even pharmaceutical products. To share the ocean commons requires a better understanding of how we must use ocean resources responsibly and sustainably.

*James Borton, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute, has recently completed his latest book, "Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground." The opinions are his own.

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