MANILA, Philippines — Fishing resources in the disputed South China Sea is “in danger of collapse” unless claimant nations, including the Philippines, act urgently to stop the sea’s decline, a US think tank said.
In a report dated September 13, Washington-based CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that South China Sea, one of the world’s vital marine ecosystems, accounted for about 12 percent of global fish catch in 2015.
But according to AMTI, the sea is “seriously threatened” by overfishing encouraged by government subsidies as well as harmful fishing practices.
Meanwhile, large-scale clam harvesting and dredging for island construction in recent years destroyed over 160 square kilometers of coral reefs, which were already declining by 16 percent per decade, AMTI also said.
“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,” the think tank reported.
“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,” it added.
Last year, a United Nations-backed tribunal, acting on a case filed by the Philippines, invalidated China’s sweeping claims over the sea and said the Asian power violated Manila’s sovereign rights by building man-made islands there that caused irreparable damage to coral reefs.
Trillion dollars’ worth of goods transit through the resource-rich waterway, control of which is at the heart of a maritime row between China and the Philippines.
Aside from Manila and Beijing — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have overlapping claims over the sea.
Citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the think tank said the Philippines could work with other claimant nations on management of fish stocks without comprising its claims over the sea.
It added that the only way to arrest the degradation of South China Sea is through multilateral cooperation among claimants, which involved the creation and management of the fisheries zones “regardless of the location of their territorial and maritime claims”.
“The Philippines, whose government is under a strict constitutional requirement to defend the nation’s sovereign rights over its waters and continental shelf, could agree to cooperate on fisheries management in disputed waters under Article 123 of UNCLOS without prejudicing its claims or bestowing legitimacy on the claims of others, and therefore without running afoul of its domestic law,” the AMTI explained.
Split enforcement responsibilities between occupiers and flag states must also be observed in order to maintain the sea, AMTI also said, adding that nations must also agree not to use subsidies to encourage fishing within already overfished areas.
Countries must also refrain from undertaking activities that could damage the marine environment or alter the seabed. They must likewise reintroduce giant clams and other threatened species to depopulated reefs in the sea.
“Claimants should agree that fishermen found to violate the management area’s restrictions would lose access to any existing government subsidy and support programs meant to support the fishing industry,” the US think tank suggested.
“Cooperate on marine scientific research, which is necessary to assess the health of the maritime environment and effectively implement conservation efforts,” it added.
The AMTI said its latest report 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.”
The working group is composed of “prominent” experts on maritime law, international relations, and the marine environment.
In August, China and the 10 countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations adopted the framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, paving way for negotiations on the code itself.
The framework seeks to establish a rules-based outline to guide the concerned parties and to promote maritime cooperation in the disputed waters. The Philippines has repeatedly expressed its position that it wants a legally binding instrument.