Over the past decade, the South China Sea has been dominated by the nationalistic territorial conflicts between China and four Southeast Asian claimants. There is also a geopolitical tussle with the United States over freedom to navigate in the contested waters. The sea’s bottom is also a threat. Overfishing, coral destruction, plastics pollution, ocean acidsification, and climate change are all potential threats. This could have a long-term effect on the sea’s survival with its rich fishing grounds, potential oil and gas reserves, and bustling lanes.
Overfishing by all seas neighbors has been a problem for years, threatening food security for more well-off people looking for other sources of protein and putting at risk the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of fishermen. In recent years, the seas’ intricate network of coral reefs has suffered extraordinary destruction. These coral reefs are where fish shelter and find food and mariners have protection from storms. Some species of fish in the South China Sea are moving further north due to climate change and warmer ocean temperatures.
James Borton, journalist and author of his new book, writes that it is in this unique marine laboratory, gateway to deep-sea ambitions, that an environmental crime scene remains unsolved. Dispatches from South China Sea – Navigating to Common Ground. His hope is that this book will increase awareness for the conservation and sustainability of marine biodiversity and fisheries that cannot be ignored.
Dispatches is a mix book that combines journalist reporting and interviewing fishers, particularly off Vietnam’s coast, as well as gathering data and quotes at the raft South China Sea conference in which Borton participated in recent years. The book’s opening section features a series compelling vignettes by fishers that detail their experiences at sea and how they have been harassed by Chinese maritime enforcement agents. Borton tells of Tran Hong Tho, a Vietnamese fishing captain, and his crew’s distress at being rammed and sunk by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel on April 2020. This was in the early days COVID-19.
The second section in Bortons book is about the politics and ecology of Chinese fishers. They scourge the bottom of the ocean for fish in thousands steel-hulled fishing trawlers and damage coral reefs. They also ram (and sometimes even sink) fishing boats from Vietnam and the Philippines. Illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing by all parties is a threat that threatens the seas approximately 115,000 fish species. Borton estimates that catch rate have fallen 70% in the last two decades.
Enjoy this article?Click here to subscribe and get full access. Only $5 per Month
The author concludes with a plea for science diplomacy. This involves scientists, diplomats as well as fishers, experts and ordinary citizens from all countries around the South China Sea, including China. They work together to build trust to implement a common conservation policy that protects the fragile ecosystem.
According to the International Fish Stocks Monitoring Program, South China Sea fish stocks are at risk of collapse if there aren’t steps taken to reduce overfishing and slow climate change. A November 2021 StudyResearchers at the University of British Columbia, ADM Capital Foundation. The researchers created models of the effects of climate change and overfishing in the South and East China Seas up to 2100. According to their report Sink or Swim, The Future of Fisheries and Fisheries in the East, and South China Seas, they have a mutual annual value of $100 Billion. They provide food and livelihoods to millions.
According to scientists, sharks and other popular seafood species like groupers could see their numbers drop to a fraction of today’s population or even disappear entirely. Some varieties could see a 90 percent decrease in their net weight (biomass), and fishers could see annual revenues plummet by $11.5 billion by 20100. The study concluded that even under the best-case scenario in which greenhouse emissions are cut and fishing is reduced in half, fishers still would see a 22 per cent reduction in their net weight.
Researchers of the study warn that our current consumption and business practices are causing seas to spiral into crisis, threatening Asia’s food security and biodiversity as well as economic stability. [O]Continued inaction will bring us into economic, social, and ecological peril. We have the option to swim or sink.
The South China Sea’s over 500 coral reef species are a natural habitat for marine life. In addition to the destruction caused by climate change, warming waters, Chinese harvesting of giantclams, and China’s dredging of islands to defend Beijing’s territorial claims, there has been rapid growth in the South China Sea. John McManus is a marine biologist from the University of Miami. He estimates that around 100 square miles of coral reefs have been destroyed by clam-hunting and China’s building of new military bases.
The ocean is an important carbon sink. It absorbs approximately one-third the human-made carbon emitted into space. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change is a result of rising sea temperatures, acidification of water and a reduction in oxygen for fish. Researchers estimate that this ocean degradation could result in a drop of nearly 60% in the number and species of fish found in the ocean.
Borton’s book is a passionate plea for the preservation of the South China Sea and its marine biodiversity. This can only be done through environmental collaboration and the adoption science-based measures among competing nations. The author calls for countries to embrace a new age of innovation, data sharing, and scientific cocreation in order to avoid a global climate catastrophe.
Borton cites McManus’ call to marine scientists to create an international marine peace reserve to protect the oceans biodiversity from unsustainable fishing and coral reef destruction, pollution (including the plastic) and rising temperatures. The author states that this requires citizen monitors and scientists to collect buckets of data, develop ocean observing technology, and expand open access to information. It is also necessary for nations to rise above politics by increasing cooperation among the regions’ marine scientists and establishing freedoms of scientific investigation on disputed islands and atolls.
A new ecological catastrophe is unfolding in the [seas]Borton warns that once fertile fishing areas were now endangered. The South China Sea faces a grim future if it doesn’t reach an agreement to address its environmental problems. While diplomatic and military tactics between China and the United States have not been exhausted, it is possible that the timing is perfect for science to emerge as an effective tool in bringing together all the claimants in the nationistic, contested sea dispute.