One of the World’s Biggest Fisheries Is on the Verge of Collapse


Major disputes in the South China Sea are putting critical habitat—and the food supply of millions—at risk.

PUERTO PRINCESA, PHILIPPINESOne time Christopher Tubo caught a 660-pound blue marlin in the South China Sea. That was years ago, when the fishing there was good, he says. He would come home from a trip with dozens of valuable fish like tuna and a haul of other species.

“Here there’s none of that,” he says, looking toward the Sulu Sea, the Philippine sea where he’s been fishing for the past four years. His two boats, traditional Filipino outriggers called bancas, float in the shallow water nearby, new coats of white paint on the decks, drying in the sun.

Tubo sits on a wooden bench in front of his home, which is perched on stilts above the bay. One of his four kids wraps an arm around his leg. Worn T-shirts and shorts flutter on clotheslines behind them.

Glancing at his wife, Leah, and the other children, he says, “It’s just chance, whether or not we can feed our families now.”

Tubo lives in Puerto Princesa, a city of 255,000 on Palawan, a long finger of an island that faces the Sulu Sea and the Philippine archipelago to the east and the contested South China Sea to the west. He’s one of the more than 320,000 fishermen in the Philippines who have traditionally made their livelihood from the South China Sea—and one of a growing number who are now fishing in other, less ecologically rich waters. That’s because about eight years ago China took a more assertive posture in the region, ramping up its intimidation of other fishermen and eventually building military installations on contested islands.