The South China Sea Is Really a Fishery Dispute
Last week the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines in its case against China’s South China Sea (SCS) claims. The nearly 500 page ruling undercut Beijing’s claims to control all the land features and water inside China’s nine-dash line and concluded that the disputed land features are either rocks that generate small (12 nautical miles) territorial seas or low-tide elevations that convey no exclusive rights to exploit resources. Although the ruling—and much of the surrounding analysis—has necessarily placed considerable emphasis on sovereignty disputes in the SCS, less attention has been given to the underlying incentives that drive claimant positions and behaviors.
Given its power and recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, China’s interests deserve special attention. Aside from enlarging China’s security perimeter, China’s regional interests can be roughly lumped into three “P”s—politics, petroleum, and proteins (fish). The last of these interests, competition over dwindling SCS fisheries, may be most consequential in driving competition, but has not received sufficient analytic attention.
Although the SCS covers only 2.5 percent of the Earth’s surface, it is home to some of the world’s richest reef systems and over 3,000 indigenous and migratory fish species, comprising some 12 percent of the total global fish catch. Unfortunately, the region’s fisheries are in serious jeopardy. As of 2008, virtually all SCS fishery stocks are collapsed (roughly 25 percent), over-exploited (roughly 25 percent), or fully-exploited (roughly 50 percent). The situation is only worsening.
The most important aspect of the Spratly Island disputes is not oil or sovereignty—it is whether or not SCS fish continue to appear on Asia’s menus. Four trends in particular are important: sustainability, economic importance, rising demand, and declining access.
The First Trend: Sustainability
Three indicators reveal the extent of SCS fishery degradation. First, catches have remained an unsustainable 10-12 million tons per year for decades—a number that could double when Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is incorporated. Steady catches mask a serious problem: catches increasingly consist of smaller species whose populations have boomed as natural predators have been overfished—a phenomenon commonly referred to as “fishing down the food web.”
Secondly, fishermen Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE) has sharply declined over the last several decades as fishermen are forced to spend more time and fuel to bring in the same amount of fish from shrinking fisheries. Destructive practices, including the use of coral-damaging bottom trawlers, muro-ami nets, or even dynamite and cyanide are often employed to squeeze more from dwindling fisheries.
Third, critical habitats are disappearing. A 2012 meta-analysis of maritime studies found that in just the last 10-15 years, SCS coral coverage rates in disputed regions have declined from over 60 percent to just 20 percent. Reefs along China’s coastline are in even worse shape, and have declined over 80 percent in the last several decades. Read more…