On the left, the relatively healthy but overfished reef flat surrounding Thitu Island; on the right, a reef flat approximately 1.5 nautical miles away destroyed by Chinese clam harvesters. Both photos dated February 2016, courtesy of John McManus.
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. Giant clam harvesting, dredging, and artificial island building in recent years severely damaged or destroyed over 160 square kilometers, or about 40,000 acres, of coral reefs, which were already declining by 16 percent per decade. The entire South China Sea fishery, which officially employs around 3.7 million people and helps feed hundreds of millions, is now in danger of collapse unless claimants act urgently to arrest the decline.
Article 123 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) mandates that states bordering semi-enclosed seas like the South China Sea are obligated to cooperate in areas that include the protection of the marine environment and management of fish stocks. This is reflective of the deeply interconnected ecologies of semi-enclosed seas, in which currents cycle marine life (and pollution) through the region without regard for national jurisdiction. Moreover, Article 192 of UNCLOS provides a general obligation for states to “protect and preserve the marine environment.” Unlike hydrocarbons, for which exploitation rights are based only upon a state’s entitlement to the continental shelf, the obligation to jointly steward living marine resources makes fisheries management and environmental protection “low hanging fruit” for cooperation in the South China Sea.
An effective system to manage South China Seas fisheries and the environment cannot be based primarily on the overlapping territorial and maritime claims, to which the fish pay no attention. Instead it must be built around the entire marine ecosystem, particularly the reef systems, on which much marine life depends. With political will, it is entirely possible for nations bordering the South China Sea to cooperatively protect these ecosystems and manage fish stocks without prejudice to their overlapping territorial and maritime claims. For instance, 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.