HANOI (AFP) – Polluted, crossed by busy shipping lanes, and disputed by many countries, the South China Sea has taken an environmental battering that threatens future food supplies, marine scientists have warned. In a decade the sea — at the heart of a densely populated and rapidly industrialising region — has lost 16 percent of its coral reefs and coastal mangroves and 30 percent of its sea grass, says the United Nations.
The exploitation of its fisheries, both legal and illegal, by family boats and industrial deep sea trawlers now threatens to deplete fish stocks that millions of people rely on, a Hanoi conference heard last week.
“The key issues on a basin scale are habitat degradation and loss, overfishing and land-based pollution,” said Vo Si Tuan, who served as Vietnam representative to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) South China Sea Project.
“There are many, many problems, but these are the biggest.”
The South China Sea is ringed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with about 350 million people living along its coastal areas.
“There are large populations heavily dependent, directly and indirectly, on fishing, in one of the world’s most biodiverse marine areas,” said Keith Symington, a marine specialist with the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“The international trends are more pronounced in the South China Sea.
“Boats have to go further and fish longer to catch the same amount of fish and they are catching smaller fish,” said Symington, speaking to AFP at the fourth Global Conference on Oceans, Coasts and Islands.
“There are a lot of illegal or unreported catches, there are fishing boats flying flags of convenience, there are loopholes.”
The UN has highlighted the damage done to coral reefs, seagrass, mangroves and wetlands that are crucial for biodiversity and fish breeding.
Vietnam’s Halong Bay, a world heritage-listed island scape, is a case in point, said Michael Hayes, an expert on tourism in protected marine areas.
“There are 138 coral species in Halong Bay, but most of the reefs are being destroyed by heavy sedimentation,” he said.
Erosion from deforestation along the Red River is pouring silt into the bay, where shrimp farms and land reclamation have destroyed mangroves and heavy shipping, coal mining and tourism are polluting the waters.
“There is more and more pressure on the South China Sea, from fisheries but also from other exploitation like oil and gas and ballast waters from ships that introduce invasive species,” he said.
Vietnam, aiming to protect its coastal areas, plans to send fewer and larger fishing boats deeper into the South China Sea, said Nguyen Chu Hoi, director of the Vietnam Institute of Fisheries Economics and Planning.
The communist government plans to declare 15 marine protected areas this year, he said, and to reduce its fleet of 90,000 mostly family-run boats by 30 percent over five years while encouraging more off-shore fishing.
The ships may be heading into troubled waters, and not just during the annual typhoon season that is set to worsen with climate change.
Fishing has already led to clashes on the high seas, with Chinese vessels and the Indonesian coastguard firing at Vietnamese ships.
Managing the South China Sea is complicated by the fact that at its heart lie the Spratly islands, which are claimed in full or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
“The South China Sea is a highly contested area,” said Robert Jara of the Philippines’ environment and natural resources department.
“One of the basic approaches now is putting aside the claims while we address the environment and the resource degradation of the South China Sea.
“If you address the claims before addressing the environment, at the end of the day everybody loses out.”