The South China Sea is a vital source of protein and export revenue. Territorial disputes between six claimant countries have led to clashes between fishing fleets as governments try to establish informal possession of reefs, rocks and other features. An international tribunal ruled that China’s claims to most of the sea have no legal basis, raising concerns about the consequences for dwindling fish stocks. Here are five things to know about fishing in the South China Sea.
1There Aren’t as Many Fish as There Used to Be
Fish stocks in the South China Sea have fallen 70% to 95% from 1950s levels, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. The researchers say if nothing is done to improve fisheries management, these stocks will decline by as much as an additional 59% from 2015 levels in the next 20 years. Estimates are probably on the low side due to unregulated and unreported fishing.
2Fish Are Valuable Economic Resources
Fish caught in the South China Sea account for about 12% of the global annual catch. In 2012, their value on the open market was just less than $22 billion, research shows. Persistent overfishing, however, means that claimant countries are earning less than they could have if they had been more careful about how much they catch in a given year. China, for example, could have caught 5 million more metric tons than it did in 2004 if it hadn’t overfished in the 1990s, based on an analysis done in 2012 by researchers in the U.S., which used modelling to compare the maximum potential sustainable catch over time with actual reported figures. The same study found that the U.S. lost a potential catch of 19 million tons of fish due to overfishing.
3China’s Fishing Fleets Dominate All Others
Chinese fishing fleets significantly outnumber those from other claimant countries in the South China Sea, bolstered by coast-guard escorts and more sophisticated navigational equipment, according to analysts who track developments in the disputed waters. Some countries—like Indonesia—have been destroying foreign fishing boats that they claim have encroached on their territorial waters, though these have for the most part haven’t been Chinese. There were about 4.7 million fishing vessels in the world in 2012, according to data from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. Of these, 68% were in Asia and nearly 700,000 were Chinese, a tally that was much larger than any other nation’s.
4Asia Is Hungry for Fish
An average person in Southeast Asia and China consumes about 24.2 kilograms of fish a year, according to estimates from the U.N. That varies from about 63.2 kilograms a year in Cambodia to 9.7 kilograms in China. For many people in the region, fish is a major source of protein, particularly where other sources are more expensive, labor-intensive or require substantial quantities of land to grow. The average annual consumption of seafood in the U.S. was just 6.5 kilograms in 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
5The South China Sea Ruling Changes the Equation for Fishermen
The ruling from the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration effectively demolished China’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea. It also found none of the contested features in the area that have been subject to substantial reclamation qualify as islands, which would have come with a 200-mile exclusive economic area for activities like fishing and drilling. This opens up a large swathe of territory to everyone under international law and undermines traditional claims from fishermen hoping for exclusivity to prime fishing territories around reclaimed features.