Too little attention has focused on another key set of actors in the South China Sea—the fishers who serve on the frontlines of this contest. Those fishers face a dire threat to their livelihoods and food security as the South China Sea fisheries teeter on the brink of collapse.
The South China Sea accounted for 12 percent of global fish catch in 2015, and more than half of the fishing vessels in the world are estimated to operate there. Its fisheries officially employ around 3.7 million people and unofficially many more. But the South China Sea has been dangerously overfished. Total stocks have been depleted by 70-95 percent since the 1950s, and catch rates have declined by 66-75 percent over the last 20 years.
Coral reefs, on which much of these fish depend, have been declining by 16 percent per decade. And that decline rapidly accelerated over the last five years in which giant clam harvesting, dredging, and artificial island building have severely damaged or destroyed over 40,000 acres, or about 160 square kilometers, of reefs.
To provide a clearer picture of the size and activities of these important players, CSIS undertook a six-month-long project in cooperation with Vulcan’s Skylight Maritime Initiative to leverage previously underused technologies and data sources to analyze the size and behavior of fishing fleets in the most hotly-contested part of the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands.
The results tell a worrying story about the scale of unseen fishing activity in the region, massive overcapacity in the Spratlys, especially on the Chinese side, and the stunning scale and expense of the maritime militia.
The fisheries and fishers of the South China Sea warrant much more attention. The disputes over the islands, reefs, and waters in the area have made effective fisheries management impossible even as a calamitous stock collapse threatens livelihoods around the region. Tools like VIIRS and SAR show that the number of fishing vessels operating in the disputed Spratly Islands is exponentially higher than AIS transmissions suggest. Improving the monitoring of these fleets will be critical if the claimants hope to save the South China Sea fisheries and reduce the frequency of unlooked-for incidents between vessels.
Meanwhile, a different kind of fishing fleet, one engaged in paramilitary work on behalf of the state rather than the commercial enterprise of fishing, has emerged as the largest force in the Spratlys. The numbers of militia vessels operating in the area on behalf of China is much larger and more persistent than is generally understood. Experts and policymakers focused on the South China Sea will need to devote a proportionate amount of their attention to these actors and the role they play in the area.
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