Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Environment

The South China Sea: Preventing the Tyranny of the Commons

Territorial disputes have exacerbated an ongoing fishery crisis. The only solution is achieving regional fishery management.

By Dr. Asyura Salleh for
The South China Sea: Preventing the Tyranny of the Commons

In this May 7, 2013 photo, Filipino fishermen bring their fish to shore in the coastal town of Infanta, Pangasinan province, northwestern Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The South China Sea is often viewed through the lens of territorial disputes and growing state competition. While the United States persists with freedom of navigation operations, China continues to develop artificial islands. Meanwhile, claimant states are becoming increasingly entangled in the heated major power tensions and face repeated incursions along maritime boundaries. Throughout these disputes, the region’s fishery resources have fallen victim to the ongoing tyranny of these shared commons. If the rapidly depleting fishery stocks in the South China Sea continue to remain underaddressed, this fishery crisis will have tremendous consequences to the stability of the Indo-Pacific.

Fishery stocks in the South China Sea are necessary to satisfy global food demand. Around 12 percent of the global fish catch comes from the South China Sea, which also hosts more than half of the world’s fishing vessels. However, these fishery resources are being exploited at a harrowing rate. It is reported that the fish stocks in the South China Sea are now only 5 percent of what they once were in the 1950s. In just the past two decades, fish stocks have fallen by 66 to 75 percent.

Unfortunately, the habitat needed to revive these fishery resources is also being eradicated. Coral reefs, which provide safety and plankton for fish to feed on, have shrunk by 16 percent in the last 10 years. Due to poor practices that harm the marine environment, including giant clam harvesting, dredging, and artificial island building, over 160 square kilometers of coral reefs have been destroyed in the South China Sea. The state of fisheries is entering a vicious cycle in which illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices catalyze the rate of depleting fishing resources while removing the very vehicle needed to guarantee fishery survival.

The main drivers behind the fishing crisis in the Indo-Pacific are political and governance factors found in coastal states. Weak license regulations, low levels of maritime enforcement, and the inequitable distribution of economic resources to fishing communities are some factors fueling this crisis. Without enough income or access to welfare services, the fishing community is pushed to resort to IUU fishing practices such as overfishing to secure more profit. Meanwhile, the poor management of fishery resources further perpetrates this crisis.

If left under-addressed, the fishery crisis in the Indo-Pacific will produce wider repercussions that can undermine regional stability in various ways. Despite originating long before the South China Sea became a contentious zone, the fishing crisis has been strongly associated with the region’s territorial disputes. Claimant states seeking to assert control over contested exclusive economic zones (EEZ) are resorting to fishing nationalism tactics such as exploiting fishery resources in these zones or apprehending foreign fishing boats.

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However, applying such sovereign-based approaches when managing fishery resources is detrimental to the sustainability of these resources. Fish are by nature migratory and fluid and do not abide by territorial delimitations. While they may spawn in one nation’s EEZ, they move to another zone during their juvenile stage, and end their lives in another nation’s EEZ. Imposing aggressive state-driven IUU fishing practices in a particular zone would prevent fish from migrating to another zone, thus diminishing the region’s entire fishery stock. By continuing to associate the fishery crisis with the territorial disputes, the region’s maritime law enforcement agencies will be inclined to import similar norms when handling the region’s fishery crisis. Although these norms seek to uphold national interests, they also jeopardize the sustainability of shared regional resources.

IUU fishing also threatens regional stability by facilitating other transnational crimes. As a crime in itself,  IUU fishing contributes to a global loss of up to $45 billion every year. However, due to declining fish stocks in the South China Sea, fishing communities are now forced to seek income through alternative avenues that also rely on a fishing boat and a crew familiar with the region’s waterways. Drug trafficking, people smuggling, sex trafficking, and  illicit trades are other types of crime that are increasingly taking place in the maritime domain. Consequently, waterways such as the Andaman Sea are emerging as dangerous maritime routes used to carry out criminal activity such as illegal migration and drug trafficking.

Several scientific studies have highlighted how IUU fishing damages marine habitat and exploits fishery resources in the South China Sea. However, not enough of this research has translated into policy-relevant knowledge that can be used to influence the agenda-setting processes that take place in regional forums. Consequently, most policy implementation efforts are not evidence-based and so cannot effectively protect fishery resources. The detrimental security, political, and economic implications of IUU fishing need to be better broadcasted across all stakeholder groups in the Indo Pacific.

Unlike territorial disputes, IUU fishing can only be tackled through a whole-of-society approach that includes law enforcement agencies, civil society organizations, and fishing communities. Such a research-driven and inclusive approach will eradicate IUU fishing practices and in doing so preserve fishery resources for the next generation. By taking a whole-of-society approach and relying on tools that are readily available in the region, fishery resources in the Indo Pacific will no longer be under the tyranny of the shared commons but will instead be transformed into a shared benefit for all.

The material in this commentary draws heavily from an upcoming report produced from the Maritime Issues in the Indo-Pacific: Building a Shared Vision of “Free and Open” Conference, Tama University’s Centre for Rule-Making Strategies and the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, held November 21-22, 2019, in Tokyo. 

Dr. Asyura Salleh is an independent consultant with a research interest in emerging maritime security threats and regime change. In addition to her broad policy and nongovernmental experience, Dr. Asyura earned a doctorate degree in International Relations from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.