Tensions are high on the seas of Southeast Asia, but it is the war beneath the sea that matters more in the long run.
Amidst the fracas between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei over claims in the South China Sea, it’s the fish and coral that are the silent victims. With every move made to bolster their claims over the region, these countries, particularly China, are slowly destroying its unique marine havens.
A contested sea.
Earlier this month, a United Nations tribunal rubbished China’s claims to most of the sea. That, however, has only seemed to have made China’s resolution stronger to continue building islands, over-fishing the seas, and executing military drills as a way to flout the ruling.
The region is well known to hold more than 7.5 billion barrels of oil, and be part of shipping routes connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans that see some $5 trillion in trade a year. Lesser known, though, it is also home to 76% of the world’s coral species (some 500) and 37% of the world’s reef-fish species (some 2,500).
In a conference on the South China Sea on Jul. 12, Edgardo Gomez of the University of the Philippines called it a “marine paradise.” In economic terms, Gomez estimates that coral reefs provide a value of $350,000 per hectare per year, more than any other natural ecosystem including tropical forests, rivers, and lakes.
More than 40 square miles of coral reef have been destroyed by giant clam poaching, which uses boat propellers to hack apart reef and pry out the giant bivalves, a delicacy in China. Another 22 square miles have been destroyed by island-building activities.