The Looming Environmental Catastrophe in the South China Sea

Much of the focus on the South China Sea over the past decade has centered around the nationalistic territorial disputes between China and four Southeast Asian claimants and a geopolitical tussle between China and the United States over freedom of navigation in the contested waters. What is going on beneath the surface of the sea – overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, climate change, plastics pollution, ocean acidification – is equally threatening and may have a longer-term impact on the survivability of the sea with its rich fishing beds, potential gas and oil reserves, and bustling sea lanes.

Years of overfishing by all the seas’ neighbors is threatening food security for increasingly well-off populations looking for alternative sources of protein and imperiling the livelihoods of thousands of fishers. The sea’s intricate network of coral reefs, where fish shelter and find food, and mariners find protection against storms, has borne extraordinary devastation in recent years. Climate change and warming ocean temperatures are driving some fish species in the South China Sea further north.

“It is in this unique natural marine laboratory and gateway to deep-sea ambitions that an environmental crime scene remains unresolved,” journalist James Borton writes in his new book, “Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.” It is his hope that this book will “raise awareness for the conservation of marine biodiversity and sustainability of fisheries that can no longer be ignored.”

“Dispatches” is a hybrid book of a journalist reporting and interviewing fishers about their experiences, particularly off the coast of Vietnam, and of gathering data and quotes from the raft of South China Sea conferences in which Borton has participated in recent years. The first section of the book offers a series of compelling vignettes of fishers describing their experiences at sea, the decline of their catches over the years and their harassment by Chinese maritime enforcement agencies. In one vignette, Borton describes the harrowing experiences of Vietnamese fishing captain Tran Hong Tho and his crew, who survived the ramming and sinking of their wooden trawler by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel in April 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second section of Borton’s book describes the politics of ecology, in which Chinese fishers scrape the bottom of sea for fish in thousands of steel-hulled trawlers, damage coral reefs, and ram (and sometimes sink) fishing boats from the Philippines and Vietnam. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by all sides is a threat to sea’s roughly 115,000 fish species. Borton estimates that catch rates have dropped 70 percent over the past two decades.

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The author concludes with an appeal for science diplomacy, in which scientists, diplomats, fishers, experts, and ordinary citizens from the countries surrounding the South China Sea, including from China, work to build trust and confidence to implement a collective conservation policy that protects the sea’s fragile ecosystem.

Fish stocks in the South China Sea face the threat of collapse if steps are not taken over the next decade to slash overfishing and slow the effects of climate change, according to a November 2021 study by scientists at the University of British Columbia and ADM Capital Foundation. The researchers modeled the effects of overfishing and climate change in both the South and East China Seas until 2100. Currently, the two seas have a shared annual value of $100 billion, providing food and livelihoods for millions, the authors said in their report, “Sink or Swim: The Future of Fisheries in the East and South China Seas.”

In some of the scientists’ climate change scenarios, sharks and popular seafood varieties like groupers could see their numbers plummet to only a fraction of their population today or be forced into extinction. In the South China Sea, some popular varieties could see their net weight (biomass) decrease by 90 percent and fishers could see their annual revenues plunge by $11.5 billion by 2100. Even in the best-case scenario, under which greenhouse emissions are curtailed and fishing is cut in half, fishers would still experience a 22 percent reduction in the net weight of their catches, the study concluded.

“Our scenario modeling paints a picture of seas spiraling into crisis, threatening Asia’s food security, biodiversity, and economic stability as a result of our current business and consumption practices,” the researchers of the study warn. “[O]ur continued inaction will lead us to economic, social and ecological peril. The choice is ours to sink or swim.”

The over 500 coral reef species, a natural habitat for marine life and where fish larvae live as they mature, have suffered rapid levels of destruction in the South China Sea in recent years from climate change, warming water temperatures, the Chinese harvesting of giant clams, and China’s dredging to create islands to secure Beijing’s territorial claims. John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami in Florida, estimates that about 100 square miles of reefs have been damaged or destroyed by clam hunting and China’s building of new islands to serve as military bases.

The ocean serves as an important carbon sink that absorbs roughly one-third of the human-created carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Climate change causes the warming of temperatures in the sea, acidification of the water, and reduction of oxygen needed by fish, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Researchers estimate that this degradation of the ocean could decrease the number of fish species in the sea by nearly 60 percent.

In his book, Borton makes a passionate plea that the South China Sea and its marine biodiversity can only be saved through environmental collaboration and the adoption of science-based measures between competing nations. To avoid “a climate catastrophe” the author calls on countries around the disputed sea to “embrace a new era of innovation, data-sharing, and scientific co-creation.”

As an example, Borton cites the call by McManus and other marine scientists to establish an international marine peace park to save the sea’s biodiversity from unsustainable fishing, coral reef destruction, pollution (including plastic), and rising temperatures. To achieve this necessitates collecting buckets of data by scientists and citizen monitors, developing ocean observing technology and expanding open access to information, the author says. It also requires nations to rise above politics, increasing cooperation among the region’s marine scientists and establishing freedom of scientific investigation on disputed atolls and reclaimed islands.

“An ecological catastrophe is unfolding in the [sea’s] once fertile fishing grounds,” Borton warns. Without an agreement to address the environmental challenges a “bleak future” confronts the South China Sea. “While traditional diplomatic and military tactics are not completely exhausted in the latest rounds of diplomatic salvos between China and the United States, perhaps the timing is excellent for the emergence of science as an optimal tool for bringing together various claimants… in the nationalistic, contested sea disputes.”

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