South China Sea Verdict Contains Environmental Message for China


Following a UN tribunal’s recent ruling on the South China Sea, media attention focused mostly on the court’s rejection of China’s vast territorial claims in an area larger than the Mediterranean.

But the court’s comments on the disputed region’s endangered marine environment also sent a strong message to China.

On July 12, an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found that China had “caused severe damage” to coral reefs in the South China Sea.

International news reports on the ruling understandably focused on one major aspect of the legal victory by the Philippines in the case it brought against China: the tribunal’s invalidation of Beijing’s territorial claims to about 85 percent of the South China Sea.

But environmental experts consider the court’s extensive comments on damage caused by China and its fishing vessels to sea life in the South China Sea also to be of great significance.

John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami who has visited the region and provided analysis to the tribunal, says that based on satellite imagery the environmental damage done by Chinese clam poaching and the building of artificial islands has been severe.

According to McManus, the most widespread damage has been done by Chinese giant clam poachers who pull boats back and forth with their propellers spinning to dig up reefs and uncover the clams, which can weigh as much as 500 pounds each.

“The sand mixed into the water by these giant clam cutter boats kills everything,” McManus said at a conference on the South China Sea held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

A BBC crew that sailed into the South China Sea last December produced one of the most startling images to emerge from the scene in years.