The Cost to Doing Nothing in the South China Sea


President Obama’s visit to the Philippines this week will train a spotlight on the fiercely contested South China Sea. Both he and his hosts will likely call on China and other claimants to maintain the status quo in the region until their various differences can be resolved. Yet while that may be the best one can hope for geopolitically, it could be a disaster environmentally.

In 2012, the South China Sea accounted for around 12 percent of the global seafood catch. If nothing changes, according to a new report from scientists at the University of British Columbia, those waters could lose nearly 60 percent of their stocks by 2045. Preventing that disaster isn’t impossible, but it’ll require multilateral talks and regional agreements on resource sharing that seem impossible given current tensions.

Overfishing isn’t a problem confined to Asia, of course. But due to the leading role that seafood plays in regional diets and economies, the problem is more acute here and has only become more so as the region has grown more affluent. Data collected by UBC researchers show that catches have steadily increased along with the number of fishermen since the 1950s. By the mid-1990s, quantities of fish in some parts of the South China Sea had already shrunk by 90 percent compared to mid-1960s levels.

Every country in the region has played a role in that decline. Still, over the last four decades, China’s naturally had the biggest impact. Between 1978 and 2013, China’s fishery production increased from 5 million tons to 60 million tons per year. In 2013, it accounted for 17 percent of the global catch — and nearly half of the South China Sea catch (worth around $21 billion).

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