A Path Towards Environmental Management in the South China Sea

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As part of an effort to manage the South China Sea disputes, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has set up and begun convening a newly-launched South China Sea Expert Working Group that brings together prominent experts on maritime law, international relations, and the marine environment. The objective is for the group to meet regularly to tackle issues it considers necessary for the successful management of the South China Sea disputes and produce blueprints for a path forward on each, with a view to eventually produce a robust model for managing the disputes that would be both legally and politically feasible—in effect, a blueprint for an eventual code of conduct.
 
Below is the first product of the CSIS Expert Working Group on the South China Sea, which focuses on fisheries and broader environmental management.
 
The South China Sea is one of the world’s top five most productive fishing zones, accounting for about 12 percent of global fish catch in 2015. 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. But this vital marine ecosystem is seriously threatened by overfishing encouraged by government subsidies, harmful fishing practices, and, in recent years, large-scale clam harvesting and dredging for island construction.
 
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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.
 
The international legal obligation to cooperate on fisheries management and the environment is matched by practical necessity. Communities all around the South China Sea are highly dependent on fish stocks for both food security and local livelihoods. Yet the region has seen catch rates plummet in recent years thanks to a combination of overfishing and willful environmental destruction. In the South China Sea, fish may spawn in one nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), live as juveniles in another’s, and spend most of their adult lives in a third. Overfishing or environmental destruction at any point in the chain affects all those who live around the sea. The entire South China Sea is teetering on the edge of a fisheries collapse, and the only way to avoid it is through multilateral cooperation in disputed waters.
 
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