The Debate

The Other Problem in the South China Sea

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The Debate

The Other Problem in the South China Sea

Territorial disputes are not the only issue to trouble this vital maritime region.

The Other Problem in the South China Sea
Credit: South China Sea fishing boat via Tonkin image /

When I became the U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I knew the South China Sea would feature in my new role: Out of the six competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, four are from ASEAN member states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The United States doesn’t have a claim itself and doesn’t take sides on these claims, but as a major maritime power, the United States does have a national interest in seeing these claims resolved peacefully and in accordance with long-established principles of international law.

What I have found, though, in my first months here, is that there is another very serious threat related to the South China Sea: the destruction of the marine environment. The recent release of a new White House action plan on illegal, underreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing underscores the U.S. interest in addressing this challenge before it’s too late.

Southeast Asia is home to more marine biodiversity than anywhere else in the world, supporting thousands of cataloged plant and animal species. The oceans provide the people of Southeast Asia and the world a critical source of protein; fish protein accounts for more than 22 percent of the average Asian diet, according to a 2013 study. Forty percent of the world’s tuna are born in the South China Sea. Fisheries in the South China Sea are a multibillion dollar industry.

The bounty of the region is still being discovered; just last month, scientists found a new species of plankton near the Spratly Islands. Between the food produced in the ocean, economic revenues linked to them, and wondrous marine splendor with the potential of supplying life-saving compounds, it is clear that these marine ecosystems are vital to regional and global well-being.

Yet, this marine bounty, and by extension, the food security of the people of the region, is under attack. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the area is widespread. Common methods such as dynamite fishing, cyanide poisoning, and bottom trawling have wreaked havoc in regional ecosystems and threaten the future of the regional fishing market. Forth percent of the South China Sea’s fish stocks have already disappeared and 70 percent of the South China Sea’s coral reefs are rated to be in fair or poor condition.

The list of endangered species in the South China Sea keeps growing, but assaults against this fragile ecosystem continue. Green sea turtles are now endangered. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered. Yet poaching turtles for their meat and shells remains common. Millions of sharks are slaughtered solely for their fins each year. Tuna are consistently over-fished. China’s massive land reclamation in the South China Sea, which is grinding up the seabed and everything that lives there to transform reefs into land, only adds to this depressing scene.

On top of this direct, daily assault, the increasing carbon in our atmosphere is also taking a slow, steady destructive toll on our oceans. Recent research shows that increased carbon dioxide levels are leading to the acidification of ocean waters at an unprecedented rate. The rising acidity makes it more difficult for corals to grow their skeletons, making them more susceptible to erosion and attacks by other organisms. And rising ocean temperatures threaten to reduce the availability of fish in traditional fishing areas as fish populations seek cooler waters.

Overfishing and IUU fishing are compounded by the sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Fishing boats are travelling farther from their territorial waters because there are fewer and fewer fish to be found in traditional fishing grounds. Part of the reason the claimants are asserting sovereignty over islands, rocks, shoals and reefs is precisely because of the fish in the surrounding waters. Ambiguous claims, unilateral fishing restrictions, and unclear law enforcement jurisdictions among the claimants worsens this problem.

The scale of the damage is large, but it is not too late for the region to save the sea and ensure the food security of the region. The ocean has tremendous powers of regeneration, and many smart and experienced people in all the maritime countries of Southeast Asia know how to address these issues. Individually, countries are beginning to act. Indonesia recently started more consistently enforcing its ban on IUU fishing. The Philippines has instituted strict poaching penalties. China’s ban on shark fin soup at official dinners has reduced the trade, and airline sanctions that limit the transport of shark fins mark a step in the right direction.

But because fish move in and out of territorial waters, only regional solutions can work. At the recent East Asia Summit, the heads of ASEAN Member States, Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States came together and reaffirmed their goals of combating wildlife trafficking and protecting the region’s biodiversity. The East Asia Summit statement highlights the need for international cooperation and integration in these measures. Asian nations need to come together to work towards these goals and expand upon them. Loopholes surrounding dual flagged vessels need to be closed. Information needs to be shared to track catches and ensure proper maintenance of fisheries. Punishments for illegal fishing and exceeding quotas need to be uniformly enforced across the region.

For our part, the United States is ready to support ASEAN as it takes on this challenge. Last month, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud, led by the Departments of State and Commerce, unveiled an ambitious new action plan that, among other things, highlights two international agreements that would help address this issue. First, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is on track to unprecedented environmental protections, including the prohibition of the most harmful fisheries subsidies and standalone commitments to combat IUU fishing while promoting sustainable fisheries management. Second, the United States is helping to promote the Port State Measures Agreement, which is the first ever agreement to set minimum standards for countries to prevent IUU seafood products from entering their ports. USAID has already been working with ASEAN Member States on fisheries and marine protected area management, and we will use the task force recommendations to further strengthen our cooperation on IUU fishing enforcement.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said on World Oceans Day last year, “We all have a responsibility to protect our ocean against the threats of overfishing, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. The entire system is interdependent, and we ignore that fact at our peril.” ASEAN member states and others have taken steps in the right direction, but there is much more that can and should be done. We must act now so all of our grandchildren can not only enjoy safe and sustainable fish, but also marvel at the natural beauty of Southeast Asia and appreciate the exquisite biodiversity that exists in our world. The United States stands ready to support these efforts.

Nina Hachigian is Ambassador of the United States to ASEAN.