The Rising Environmental Toll Of China’s Offshore Island Grab


To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.

In the late 1980s, marine biologist John McManus and his colleagues made a surprising discovery while studying near-shore Philippine reefs in the South China Sea: Some fish species seemed to disappear, only to reappear a year or two later. “We figured they weren’t coming from other parts of the coast because the entire South China Sea, with the exception of Brunei, is equally overfished,” says McManus, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami.

The researchers’ hunch, which proved to be correct, was that larvae were floating to the near-shore reefs from the Spratlys — an offshore archipelago that lies between Vietnam and the Philippines and is a key spawning ground for one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Scientists later reported that the South China Sea, which is the size of India and has hundreds of islands and islets, has some of the highest marine biodiversity on earth, with 571 known species of reef corals alone.

But the South China Sea’s rich natural heritage, long threatened by overfishing, now faces a new ecological danger: A campaign by China to build artificial islands on disputed reefs in the Spratlys and elsewhere in the sea. China’s island-building initiative signals an aggressive stance intended to secure dominance in the South China Sea, a strategic area that contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and is a potential source of oil deposits.