What are the consequences when the only accepted expression of sovereignty is the exploitation of resources? This article frames South China Sea conflicts as the product of a tragedy of commons, whereby decreasing fish stocks are the problem undergirding the machinations of the surrounding nations, especially China. It then examines the body of water's role as a battlefield of sovereignty and military flexing and how this exacerbates environmental consequences. Reducing fish stocks, mangrove destruction, pollution, and the destruction of coral reefs and their associated microbiomes are all cited as grave consequences that put in question the future of the South China Sea. In the face of eroded security and fierce vying for control of the sea, aquaculture is also raised as an alternative to satiate South China Sea nations' intense domestic demand for fish and its economic importance. The environmental consequences of this are also explained.
Naval vessels patrol the waters, aerial exercises are routinizing, military bases are being effectively erected throughout the sea as if it were a computer game; an unstudied observer might conclude that a war is being waged in the South China Sea. They wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Explosives are being used regularly, and missiles often fired.1 The only caveat is that the war at-large is fought not with automatic firearms, but trawler nets. Fishermen are the foot soldiers in the war over the South China Sea’s fisheries.
Accounting for 12% of the world’s fish supply, the South China Sea is a pivotal resource for bordering countries. If one factors in the estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 11 billion barrels of oil, and the passage of almost a third of all international shipping vessels, it is easy to understand why it is considered the world’s most hotly contested body of water, and therefore, also the perfect stage for a nation to assert itself in the global eye.2 China’s aggressive machinations centered around dominating the region’s fisheries - which have led to conflicts with most surrounding countries - are a heavy-handed demonstration of its economic, political, and military might. How other Southeast Asian nations react to China’s incessant flexing is paramount to containing - or laying the path for - China’s quest for regional hegemony.
Although Vietnam, the Philippines, and other middle-income countries may not be able to compete with China’s blue water navy, fishing is a different matter. Economically and nutritionally important in the nations surrounding the South China Sea, China’s competition has accrued centuries of experience navigating and fishing. Lost, however, in the metaphorical reading of the fervent war for the South China Sea’s fisheries is the rapidly degrading state of the body of water itself.3
The myopic pursuit of control for the South China Sea fisheries has led to a reduction in fish stock, marine health, as well as future profitability. With this in mind, this paper will explain how fishing as an exploitative expression of sovereignty has led to the sea’s current dilapidated state. Thereafter, to demonstrate how interconnected - and fragile - the network of nations, economies, and environment is, the reaction by the Philippines provides an example response to the reduced fish stocks and their security. This analysis entails a look into the Philippines’ shift towards aquaculture and the advantages and disadvantages offered for both the economy and environment to that end. The goal is thus to provide insight on the sustainability of a peripheral nation’s response to China’s aggressive exterior posture – which is unlikely to change in the future.
Resolutions in the South China Sea
Conducting a routine aerial exercise on April 8th, 2012, a Filipino reconnaissance aircraft noticed a peculiarity: the five rocks - the tallest of which protrudes only three meters above water - that mark the Scarborough Shoal were not lone specs in a turquoise sea, but rather five rocks accompanied by an equal number of Chinese fishing vessels. Only 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon, the Scarborough Shoal is clearly within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Manila dispatched a naval vessel to investigate, and after discovering illegally collected giant clams, corals, and live sharks, the Philippines attempted a naval arrest of the Chinese fishermen. Beijing, shocked by Manila’s decision to send not a coast guard but a naval vessel, responded with two marine surveillance ships of its own, and the arrest attempt was swiftly blocked. A stand-off ensued whereby the number of ships ballooned beyond ten.
Although in the eyes of Western observers, the confrontation may have seemed dire, students of the South China Sea recognized the event as the manifestation of long-conflicting interests. Three decades after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (UNCLOS) establishment of EEZs, boundaries have remained subjective. The result: the gradual erosion of the region’s security. Norms of respecting territorial waters were thrown out the door and custom dictated nothing; the Scarborough Shoal standoff was eventually mediated by the United States, but this mediation attempt accomplished little. China would quickly double back on its promises and claim de-facto sovereignty. In 2021, over eight years later, China still remains in control.4
Lessons from the Scarborough Shoal Standoff
The Scarborough Shoal standoff touches on two themes relevant when studying the South China Sea: sovereignty claims and domestic needs (both economic and dietary). First and foremost, the theme of sovereignty undergirds any discussion of the South China Sea. In theory, sovereignty should only arise as a point of conflict in a minority section of the sea. Under the UNCLOS’ establishment of EEZs, 200 nautical miles is the legal extension of a country’s sovereignty. The Scarborough Shoal standoff, however, demonstrated that not all countries respect EEZ boundaries.
Sovereignty can be explained as dependent upon both international recognition and physical force.5 China’s blatant disregard for UNCLOS-established borders would be irrelevant if it were unwilling to buttress its claims with physical action. Instead, China’s refusal to leave the Shoal after the US-brokered deal is a physical declaration of sovereignty. Other countries may not recognize China’s "nine-dash line," its historical claim to the majority of the South China Sea due to historical precedent, but at day’s end, Chinese vessels occupy the Shoal.
In setting a precedent of not observing UNCLOS, China has undermined the international recognition aspect upon which sovereignty is contingent. This results in countries extracting resources to exert sovereignty. As follows, the South China Sea has become an anarchic arena where official EEZs have no meaning and sovereignty, and the ownership of precious resources falls to any nation bearing superior military muscle and/or fishing capacity. This explains the regions eroded security. Indeed, it is a free-for-all where international arbitration holds no weight and gunboat diplomacy dominates the waters.
The second issue embodied within the Scarborough Shoal standoff deals with what Filipino officials found aboard Chinese fishing vessels. The South China Sea is a rich fishing ground, on which many of the surrounding economies - including China’s - depend. Fishing revenue accounts for 3% of China’s annual GDP (US$ 279 billion) and 2.7% of the Philippines’. Employment in fisheries in China exceeds 14 million, and in the Philippines, that number is 1.5 million.6 This explains why EEZs were erected in the first place, to protect coastal economies and communities; "as 90% of all fish stocks are within 200 miles of shore, the EEZ was designed to safeguard a basic human right to food security."7
The South China Sea also helps feed surrounding countries. Filipino fish consumption per capita was 40kg in 2017. Fish and fish products accounted for 12.8% of total caloric intake, and nearly half of all animal proteins consumed.8 For reference, per capita fish consumption in the same year was 7.5kg in the US, 23.7kg in France, and 26kg in Australia; this to show that fish consumption in Southeast Asian island countries isn’t simply the product of rising incomes, it is culturally enshrined as a dietary staple. Rising incomes, however, have also played a role in China. In fact, fish consumption grew 6% annually between 1990 and 2010.9 The country now consumes 34% of the global fish supply, and in 2015, the per capita fish consumption was 14.3 kg in urban areas and 5.3 kg in rural.10
Environmental Consequences of Competitions for Sovereignty
The South China Sea spans 3.5 million square kilometers with one of the highest levels of marine biodiversity on earth, home to over 6,500 marine species, 571 of which are just corals.11 The abundance of coral reefs is one of the sea’s most notable features and plays a vital role in its ecosystem.
Coral reefs function as breeding grounds for a variety of marine life and thus help sustain the sea’s fish population. These reefs also function as ‘roadside cafés,’ where fish can stop during their migration to and from the Indian Ocean. The resulting diversity in fish keeps the system in harmony Coral reefs function as breeding grounds for a variety of marine life and thus help sustain the sea’s fish population. These reefs also function as ‘roadside cafés,’ where fish can stop during their migration to and from the Indian Ocean. The resulting diversity in fish keeps the system in harmony and is necessary for attracting and sustaining larger catches, like tuna.12 Moreover, deep ocean currents pull and deposit phytoplankton - the food of most fish - at coral reefs and shorelines, further attracting fish towards shallower waters. This explains why 90% of the commercially viable fish stock is concentrated near-shore and thus within EEZs.13 This enables small and medium-scale fisheries that are unequipped with the technology or capital necessary for deep sea fishing to sustain themselves and their communities. Given the combined coastal populations of South China Sea countries of 270 million, it is clear how important the health of coral reefs is to fish-based economies.14
How are marine systems affected when sovereignty is expressed through resource extraction? In the South China Sea, the rapidly deteriorating health of the marine environment is the consequence. Coral reefs, along with mangroves, and seagrasses, are declining in coverage by 1.6-3% annually.15 Along China’s mainland coast and that of the Hainan Island, coral abundance has fallen by 80% over the last three decades. Around the atolls and islands throughout the sea, claimed by various nations, coral coverage fell from an average greater than 60% to just 20% within the last 15 years.16 While climate change and ocean acidification (the changing pH balance of waters as consequence of excessive carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere) have damaged these environments, the rapid economic and population growth of South China Sea countries, and thus coastal development, are also important factors.17 As coasts develop, agricultural, urban, and industrial run-off are all sources of contamination.18
The South China Sea’s role in global trade also bears delirious effects. The greater density of ships traversing the sea subjects the environment to compounds released from anti-fouling paints which are used to protect ships’ hulls. These can be toxic to marine creatures. The high volume of shipping also subjects waters surrounding ports and harbors to the discharge of ballast water. Ballast water is the water taken on by cargo ships between ports (after having unloaded heavy cargo) to provide stability, especially when seas are rough. Ballast water, however, often contains high concentrations of crude oil or other pollutants found offshore in shipping centers. When discharged, these pollutants permeate the surrounding sea environment.19
In the context of the South China Sea’s conflict, the region’s dwindling fish supply undoubtedly exacerbates existing hostilities. While expressions of sovereignty might serve as exercises in chest-puffing between nations, they would be rendered useless should they not imply access to lucrative fisheries. Between Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, billions of dollars are generated annually from the 16.6 million tons of fish caught.20 The summation of vested interests explains the gross expanse of overfishing; "some waters have less than one-tenth of the stocks they did six decades ago. High-value fish such as tuna and grouper are becoming scarcer."21 Of the 3.2 million marine fishing vessels worldwide, over half (1.77 million) operate in the South China Sea. Considering that the region accounts for less than 20% of global catch, inefficiencies and ship congestion are serious problems. The region’s peak catch was in 2003 with 14.52 million tons and Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE) has declined between 3-4 times since.22
Waters off the coast of Palawan, a southwestern province of the Philippines, once plied by thirty-some fishing vessels now routinely witnesses up to a hundred fishing boats (many Chinese) on two-week excursions. In such situations, countries may wish that others abided by their specific fishing laws but as no country is willing to accept another nation’s jurisdiction over the region, it is a free-for-all to catch anything and everything that remains. One consequence of this is known as "fishing down the web" whereby fishermen increasingly catch smaller species (as the high-price natural predators become endangered).23
Apart from depleting fish stocks, fishing down the web forces fishermen to venture beyond EEZs into more remote, difficult-to-navigate waters. Fishermen thus incur greater fuel costs, potentially pricing out small- and medium-scale fishing operations. Even more worrisome from an environmental standpoint, however, are the fishermen who turn to practices like blast fishing, whereby homemade bombs are detonated underwater to kill large swaths of fish. While the immediate return is high, it decimates fisheries and the collateral damage to coral reefs further jeopardizes fisheries and their supporting ecosystems.24
Highlight: Island Building
A discussion of the South China Sea’s environment would be incomplete without mention of how the landscape might change moving forward. As alluded to earlier, physical presence appears to be the ultimate decider of sovereignty in the South China Sea. Nations can invest in expanding their naval capacity, as has China, which now has the largest navy in the world in terms of the number of vessels. Nations also may provide fuel subsidies so ships can venture deeper into the South China Sea for longer periods (in 2009, total South China Sea fishing subsidies amounted to US$ 1.89 billion). These, however, are quick, short-term solutions.25 To ensure sovereignty over disputed territory, a permanent physical presence is an ideal solution. Especially considering that sovereignty is communicated as control over the sea’s fishing stocks and energy resources (both crucial to the region’s economies) boat activity is very high. To have boats perennially patrol the waters (part in fear that if absent another nation may insert itself in an area) erecting concrete features to support naval activity, was only a matter of time.
China’s endeavors in island building are unprecedented. With seven naval bases finished (and more on the way), China is estimated to have constructed around 3,200 hectares of land.26 Reef area, consequentially, has declined. Today, these structures are concentrated in the Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago west of the Philippines. Some of the largest environmental consequences can be traced to the practice of island building.
Island building begins with dredging, a process that alters the ocean’s topography. Dredging can be done various ways; in the South China Sea, it is most common where a boat drops arm-like features equipped with heavy weights onto the ocean floor. The heavy weights - up to 55 tons each - are equipped with vacuum-like suction so as the boat moves, dragging the weights along the ocean floor, sand is dislodged and sucked up into the ship which has hoppers that can store up to 35,000 yards of ocean bottom.27 The idea is to reallocate the sand from the periphery to the center of an existing ocean floor peak (typically a sandbar or coral reef). 28 After being laid on an existing, shallow ocean floor feature, concrete can be laid, and permanent construction begins.Island building begins with dredging, a process that alters the ocean’s topography.
Dredging can be done various ways; in the South China Sea, it is most common where a boat drops arm-like features equipped with heavy weights onto the ocean floor. The heavy weights - up to 55 tons each - are equipped with vacuum-like suction so as the boat moves, dragging the weights along the ocean floor, sand is dislodged and sucked up into the ship which has hoppers that can store up to 35,000 yards of ocean bottom. The idea is to reallocate the sand from the periphery to the center of an existing ocean floor peak (typically a sandbar or coral reef). After being laid on an existing, shallow ocean floor feature, concrete can be laid, and permanent construction begins.29
Plumes and large clouds of suspended sediment from dredging can also bury nearby reefs, killing those as well. Where corals aren’t buried, the sediment can still overwhelm them, resulting in damaged corals highly susceptible to diseases. The abrasive sands literally "sand off" living tissues of diverse species and prevent the growth of new coral larvae, hence why dredging sites tend to show no signs of recovery once damaged.30 One study found that a dredging project in the U.S. entirely destroyed 440 hectares of coral reef, but also severely affected over 2,800 hectares of those surrounding.31 It is thus no surprise that China’s construction atop seven atolls in the Spratly Islands is predicted to have negatively affected over 10% of the Spratlys’ shallow reef area.32
Responses to Crises in Security and Environment: The Philippines
Confronted with the increasing pollution, trawl fishing having reduced once-robust fisheries, and militarization in the South China Sea has rendered what was once an easily accessible pool of resources for the Philippines arduous to exploit. The costs associated with fishing are rising as nearshore fisheries shrink and fishermen are forced to venture into deeper water where the CPUE is lower and fuel and equipment costs quickly add up. How does a country with the longest discontinuous coastline, which is dependent on fisheries economically and nutritionally, pivot in response to these challenges?33
A quick exposé of Filipino fisheries demonstrates why these challenges are so dire, and why aquaculture has become the preferred alternative. The overwhelming majority (roughly 80%) of fishing in the Philippines is carried out by small-scale fisheries or households.34 Fishermen are on average the poorest in the Philippines, their households tend to be larger, and their educational attainment lower (relative to other sector averages). The fishing operations of these households are based upon banca, the most common fishing craft used in municipal fishing. These boats are constructed with a narrow main hull and two flanking, bamboo outriggers.35
Beyond these fisheries, it is important to remember that the Philippines also has one of the largest coastal populations (beyond 70% of the population is concentrated near coasts).36 This is no surprise considering the country is composed of over 7,000 islands, but lest one forget that these populations, although not entirely engaged in fishing, may nonetheless be in industries tangentially dependent.37 "Here are important links with the various sectors supplying the inputs: fry/fingerling production/gathering and trade, fertilizer and chemical supply, supply of construction materials and feed ingredients, and feed manufacture, transport, and storage. Many people work in associated sectors: post and financing."38
To abandon fishing entirely, therefore, would be to jettison long-accumulated, precious industries and capital. For this reason, aquaculture has become the next best option. Aquaculture in the Philippines can take place inland as well as along the coast and ensure s the web of industries built around fishing continue communities is to provide jobs and sustain Capture fisheries peaked in 2010 with 2,615,801 tons of catch, and have declined since gradually supplanted by yields from aquaculture.39
As capture fisheries decline, the surplus labor demand has been effectively absorbed by aquaculture. However, aquaculture in the Philippines dates back to the 1980s. At the time, most fishermen in the Philippines were poor. Their ability to sustain financial risk was limited, their access to communal resources was weak, and private property was unprotected. "Most of the farm owners were male, with women being employed in the sector either because of better income opportunities compared to other industries or because the farms were owned by their family."40 Aquaculture offered the creation of well-defined property rights, often viewed as a requisite for productivity growth. Coastal communities dealing with poverty now could achieve complete ownership of their production. 41
Aquaculture would not have taken off had it not been a relatively low-cost and labor-intensive industry. Costs vary based on the goods produced. The four cost main products in the Philippines are, in order of shape and production value, seaweeds, milkfish, tilapia, and shrimp. Seaweeds have the lowest barrier to entry in terms of capital, and as Filipino aquaculture is increasingly dominated by low-income households previously engaged in the capture fishing is the most popular line of aquaculture; 70 % of aquaculture production are seaweeds, and it is estimated that 180,000 families are dependent on the industry. 42 Seaweed can be produced in both shallow and deep waters, the former being more common due to the lower level of startup capital necessary.
Highlight: Irz et al. (2007)43
To get a clearer idea of the extent to which aquaculture supports coastal communities in the Philippines, we can draw a case study from Irz et al. (2007). The paper published in the Development Policy Review utilizes a 2004 random sample of 148 houses from six municipalities in two regions with historically robust aquaculture industries. Between 31% and 76% of households were in absolute poverty across the six municipalities. Aquaculture’s role varied depending on the municipality. In municipalities with more built-out industrial sectors, aquaculture comprised roughly 30% of the income of households sampled; in areas with less industry, this was closer to 40% of household income. Aquaculture’s share of household income, however, always increased amongst the poorest households, indicating its importance for the least well-off. The percentage point difference between aquaculture’s share of household income in all households and extremely poor ones was often near or beyond 10.
Another key finding was that although certain forms of aquaculture may require minimal capital, very few within the sample were owners (or operators) of fish farms. Instead, the majority of respondents engaged in aquaculture - over half of all households - are daily laborers hired to perform labor-intensive maintenance such as maintaining anti-flood barriers, or dikes, or weeding. Day labor wages increased during harvest periods, which take place two to three times a year, and increase employment opportunities as well.
Ultimately, the study concluded that aquaculture is unambiguously beneficial to the poor. While ownership remains in the hands of a select, rich cohort, the intense labor demand provides valuable employment for a majority of surrounding households. In Filipino communities where lack of employment is the primary cause of poverty, aquaculture, therefore, helps alleviate poverty. Had the sampled municipalities not had access to aquaculture, the poverty headcount would rise from 54% to 70%, and the poverty gap (the extent to which households are below the poverty line) would nearly double from 24% to 47%.
Environmental Consequences of Aquaculture
Unfortunately, although aquaculture may help satiate the economic needs of communities throughout the South China Sea, it does not exist privy of environmental consequences. Habitat destruction, specifically of mangroves, is often a consequence of aquaculture and the ponds that must be created.44 Mangroves provide a variety of functions, such as protecting inland territories from storm surges, filtering out pollutants, and providing a fertile habitat for both marine and terrestrial life.45 What is more, as with island-building, wave patterns are also altered, potentially depriving marine creatures from the algae and phytoplankton necessary to sustain life.
Harmful organic material discharged into surrounding bodies of water is also a concern.46 Fecal matter from either ponds or cages, and antibiotics or drugs that pervade the aquaculture systems’ water supply to treat fish and crustacean diseases, are both released without treatment into the ecosystem. Also, in creating ponds and maintaining the surrounding dykes, land is often excavated and rearranged. During this process, acid sulfate soils can be dug up. When this occurs, the dense concentration of iron sulfide materials in these soils is exposed and oxidizes, turning into sulfuric acid. This can run-off during rainfall or storm surges and damage the surrounding environment.47
As is often the case, unlimited desires for a limited resource - fisheries - are at the root of the South China Sea conflict. A need to secure sovereignty in this 21st century ‘wild west’ is exacerbated by the valuable resources demanded by both economies and consumers. As long as sovereignty is demonstrated through ownership of fisheries, the South China Sea’s environment will continue to fall into disarray. Without respected clear territories nor international arbitration, it is impossible to establish norms regulating the extraction of fish or limiting congestion and pollution; there is no over-arching caretaker of the South China Sea, and the erosion of its environment stands as witness. In the face of these challenges, peripheral powers like the Philippines are unable to compete with China. Still needing to cater to a growing economy and domestic demand, aquaculture has proven to be a viable alternative. Pivoting towards aquaculture preserves many of the industries and linkages developed through decades of capture fishing, and its labor-intensive nature offers up vast employment potential. Should the South China Sea remain unregulated, the CPUE continue to decline, and costs of capture fishing rise, aquaculture poses many benefits. These, however, must be taken into consideration with the environmental degradation that can follow suit. It would behoove countries such as the Philippines more towards aquaculture, looking to take the withering state of the South China Sea as a lesson in the relevance of environmental sustainability for future profits.
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