National Geographic : 2017 Mar
a Sea’S FaDing BoUntY 85 installations there. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” says Zachary Abuza, an expert on South- east Asian politics and maritime security at the National War College, in Washington, D.C. “China is trying to enforce its sovereignty through the construction of these islands and by denying oth- er countries access to natural resources.” Eugenio Bito-onon, Jr., is a former mayor of the Kalayaan municipality that includes islands in the Spratlys. An outspoken advocate for the Philippines’ claims, he has seen firsthand how China uses its fishermen to strengthen its claim to the region. I met Bito-onon in the municipal- ity’s cramped satellite office in Puerto Princesa, where the wall of one room displays a large map of the South China Sea marked up with hand- written labels and colored dots showing which countries claim which features. He pulled up Google Earth on his laptop and found Thitu Island, in the Spratlys, where some 200 Filipinos, including a small number of troops, live part-time, their presence demonstrating his country’s claim to the island. Bito-onon pointed out just how close Chinese-claimed Subi Reef is to Thitu. So close, he said, that on a clear day resi- dents can see it on the horizon. Even closer are Chinese that he says have fished the reefs empty. “For the past three years, Chinese fishing boats come and go, replacing each other,” he told me, adding that the boats are always within sight of the island. aS long aS the conflict in the South China Sea continues, it will be nearly impossible to regu- late fishing. “It’s unclear whose laws you’re en- forcing when you have seven overlapping sets of fisheries laws,” Poling says. “States have a vest- ed interest in purposely violating fishing laws of other states.” That’s because abiding by an- other nation’s fishing law amounts to accepting that nation’s jurisdiction over the region. When one country tries to protect its fishing grounds, tensions flare. In 2012 a Philippine Navy warship tried to arrest Chinese fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, about 138 miles from the Philippine coast, on suspicion of illegal fish- ing and poaching rare corals, giant clams, and sharks. A Chinese coast guard ship intervened to prevent the arrests, forcing a standoff. Ten weeks later both sides agreed to withdraw, but after the Philippine warship left, China’s ship remained, effectively seizing control of the shoal. Because of overfishing, fishermen have seen their catches—and the fish themselves—getting smaller, setting off a dangerous cycle. Some Fili- pino fishermen have resorted to perilous, illegal fishing methods, including blast fishing with homemade bombs, and cyanide fishing, which uses the poison to stun and slow the fish to make them easier to catch. Both practices kill coral and other fish, collateral damage that’s pushing the sea closer to an overfishing crisis. More destructive to the reefs, however, are China’s island-building and giant clam poaching, happening on a large scale. The poaching, which entails digging up entire areas of reef to get to the clams, has caused most of the documented reef destruction in the sea. That in turn affects fish stocks. When a reef is destroyed, the ecosystem unravels. Reef fish lose their habitat, pelagic fish such as tuna lose an important source of food, and fish larvae from one reef can no longer replenish fish on other reefs. “It’s quite possible we’re seeing a serious de- cline in about half the reefs” in the South China Sea, McManus says. “It’s just total destruction.” Experts say that cooperative regional manage- ment, including dramatic cutbacks in the number of fishing boats and restrictions on certain fishing methods, would go a long way toward making the South China Sea fishery sustainable. But Poling questions whether such a plan could be devised in time to prevent the fishery from collapsing. “What that requires is setting aside the dis- putes,” Poling says. “It’s possible. It’s just not likely. To have a successful joint management system, the first step is to agree on what area you’re talking about.” If China clings to its ex- panded jurisdictional claim while other countries base their claims on international law, agreement won’t be possible, he says. And so, the South China Sea’s fish—its princi- pal resource—are disappearing, even as nearby countries stand passively by or encourage their fishermen to keep taking more. j This is the debut of Dispatches, a series of field reports from National Geographic writers and photographers. This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, with grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Aurora Almendral provided additional reporting.