The South China Sea represents more than just a geopolitical struggle; it is a hotspot for fishing. Beijing claims that its historic rights give it ownership inside the so-called Nine-Dash Line, covering around 80 percent of the South China Sea. These claims contradict maritime laws, among them The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and have received backlash from several Southeast Asian countries.
For example, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all hold overlapping claims over the Spratlys Islands, a group of islands, archipelagos and reefs. Aggression from all sides and a lack of cooperation on fishing regulations have endangered the livelihoods of fishermen, who rely on the South China Sea for sustenance. Here are seven facts about fishermen poverty in the South China Sea:
7 Facts about Fishermen Poverty in the South China Sea
The South China Sea fisheries constitute the economic lifeblood of claimant states. They are the home of upwards of 3,365 species of marine fish, and 55 percent of marine fishing vessels operate in the South China Sea. Moreover, approximately 12 percent of global fishing catches occur there. In addition to being a source of nutrition, the fisheries provide employment to at least 3.7 million people.
Overfishing has depleted the fishing reserves of the South China Sea. A Stimson report released in December 2012 found that shallow reefs and shoals have been exploited to their limit. Relative to other regions of Earth, portions of the South China Sea are among the most highly affected marine ecosystems.
Coastal development has further aggravated marine species. Mangroves, for example, occupy a mere 70 percent of their original land area in the South China Sea, and seagrass beds have shrunk to 50 percent of pre-industrial levels. Industrial pollutants, tourism and sediment runoff have endangered marine species, which use coastal habitats for spawning purposes. When these coastal habitats become depleted, fishermen venture beyond national limits, leading to confrontations at sea.
Overexploitation of stocks has forced fishermen to turn to dangerous fishing techniques. In order to make up for economic losses, fishermen have used explosives and cyanide to boost yields. Some have resorted to blast fishing, in which dynamite is used to kills schools of fish. This allows for easy collection, but it seriously harms the coral reefs and seabed in the process. In Indonesia alone, fishing explosives have cost up to $3.8 billion between 1980 and 2000.
Fishermen poverty is a common type of poverty in countries surrounding the South China Sea. 80 percent of Indonesian fishing households earn incomes below the country’s poverty line. In the Tay Ninh province of Vietnam, people working in the fisheries sector made up 88 percent of very low-income households in 1999. Moreover, poverty is more prevalent in Filipino fishing households than in the average Filipino household.
Legal uncertainty about the status of artificial islands and false claims in the South China Sea have exacerbated tensions between fishermen from different Southeast Asian nations. Maritime border disputes have prevented countries from establishing a framework for cooperation. With no regulation of fishing activities, illegal and unreported fishing has gone rampant in the South China Sea.
Border disputes have put the lives of Southeast Asian fishermen in danger. CNN reported that, in 2015, Chinese vessels attacked 200 Ly Son (Vietnamese) fishermen and 17 fishing boats. Starting in 2005 and lasting seven years, Chinese government ships kidnapped Vietnamese fishers for ransom near The Paracel Islands. Romel Cejuela, a Filipino fisherman, explained that the Chinese Coast Guard personnel “board our boats, look at where we store the fish and take the best ones.” China is not the sole perpetrator of these acts of violence and robbery. In 2017, Reuters article Indonesia’s navy shot four Vietnamese fishermen on a fishing boat in the South China Sea.
On June 27, 2018, representatives from the member states of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China met in Changsha to negotiate a “code of conduct” for vessels traveling through the South China Sea. For the first time, China and ASEAN reached a consensus on a set of maritime rules and planned to hold joint maritime exercises in the future. While some critics dismiss the meeting as a Chinese ploy, agreements like this one are necessary for fishermen whose lives depend on stability in the South China Sea.
To alleviate fishermen poverty and create an environment more conducive to cooperation and sustainable fishing, it is essential that Southeast Asian nations delineate territorial claims and abide by a rules-based international order. With the negotiations currently underway, this may occur sooner than originally anticipated.
– Mark Blekherman