In South China Sea case, ruling on environment hailed as precedent


BEIJING — For the past several years, US marine scientist John W. McManus has been using satellite imagery to track China’s fishing practices and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Earlier this year, after viewing images of reef destruction, he decided to go see it for himself. In February, he ventured to the Spratly Islands – roughly 300 miles west of the Philippines – and surveyed several reefs, including one that Chinese clam dredgers had heavily exploited.

“The damage was much worse than even I expected it to be,” Mr. McManus, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami, says in a telephone interview. “I swam over one whole kilometer of reef before I saw a single living invertebrate. It was really massive, massive destruction.”

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Many fishing fleets worldwide employ harmful practices to harvest seafood from coral reefs, including the use of boat propellers, poisonous cyanide, and dynamite. But last week, an international tribunal in the Hague named China as a primary driver of reef destruction in the South China Sea, because of its fishing practices and construction of artificial islands.

While the court’s decision on maritime rights was significant, experts say its findings on coral reef destruction could have more lasting impact, both in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Because of this damage, the court ruled, China had violated its legal obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.