Fisheries diplomacy and the South China Sea Australia should step up to shore up the region’s fisheries

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The dynamiting of reefs, plus overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and the impacts of climate change are all having an impact on fish stocks in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Anthony Bergin takes a look at what Australia could do about it.
 
China’s island-building in the South China Sea may be the focus of the world’s attention in the region, but what’s happening beneath the waves deserves as much scrutiny and international action. It’s action where Australia could play a significant role.
 
Recently on Policy Forum, Marina Tsirbas put forward a concise and well-argued perspective on the valuable fishery resources of the South China Sea, highlighting the failure of the individual sovereignty-based approach to preserving fish sustainability.
 
Discussions about seriously over-exploited regional fish stocks can often lead to a higher level interaction on broadly related political issues, so in the contested waters of the South China Sea proposals to strengthen fisheries cooperation potentially offer helpful ideas for maritime confidence-building measures.
 
The piece proposed that Australia and other like-minded states encourage key Southeast Asian states and China to look at establishing a regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) in the area that would include export destination states, fishing states and relevant coastal nations.
As fish don’t respect boundaries, she suggested that the area of the regional fisheries management body may need to go beyond the South China Sea and encompass the Southeast Asian region.
 
The example Marina put forward is an RFMO similar to the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), an international fisheries management body that seeks to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks such as tunas, billfish and marlin in the western and central Pacific. But while the western boundary of the WCPFC notionally extends to the East Asian seaboard, the convention area doesn’t include the South China Sea.
I’d note here the existence of the long-standing Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC). APFIC was originally established as the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council in 1948 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
 
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