The escalating territorial dispute in the South China Sea is as much an ecological crisis as it is a geopolitical one. Dredging, land reclamation and the construction of artificial islands could be swamping centuries old reefs in sediment, endangering ecosystems that play a key role in maintaining fish stocks throughout the region. According to leading marine biologist Professor John McManus, a proper understanding of the marine ecosystem and its role in food security is key to finding a solution to both the environmental and political issues.
McManus, Professor of Marine Biology & Fisheries at the University of Miami, is more familiar than most with the region’s contested reefs, atolls and shoals, having spent seven years in the northern Philippines monitoring seasonal fluctuations in coastal fish populations, amongst other things. McManus was puzzled to observe that dwindling fish stocks would recover seasonally, despite severe overfishing. “All of the South China Sea coastlines are over-fished, except maybe Brunei where oil rigs are refuges for fish populations,” McManus explains. “Yet species would become locally extinct, then a year or two later they’d be back.”
McManus discovered that periodic ‘pulses’ of larval fish were being carried on shifting currents throughout the South China Sea, replenishing coastal fish stocks and that they were being spawned in the offshore reef ecosystems at the heart of the current geopolitical fracas.