MANILA - Sovereignty issues in the South China Sea should be set aside to protect the environment, as years of unregulated fishing and China's recent island-building caused fish catch to drop, an analyst said Friday.
Over 160 square kilometers of coral reefs were "severely damaged or destroyed" due to "giant clam harvesting, dredging, and artificial island building," a 2017 report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said.
"All countries should set aside for the time-being arguments over sovereignty and argument over the limitations of their maritime claims and economic shelf because under international law, you have the obligation to protect the environment and fish even when disputes are outstanding," AMTI Director Gregory Poling said.
Fisheries in the entire South China Sea is in danger of collapse unless claimants act urgently to arrest the decline, he said.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea where $5 trillion in trade goods pass annually. The area is also believed to contain oil and gas reserves.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea in March.
The AMTI suggested that the code should have a provision where claimant countries would be responsible for the preservation of marine biodiversity 200 miles from their coast and 12 miles from outpost they occupy.
Having such a responsibility over an area, however, will not equate to ownership, Poling said.
Poling said the AMTI's proposal for was received "positively" in Vietnam, but he has yet to formally discuss it with China.
"It might be possible to convince China to agree to this kind of framework as this is one area they can show leadership," he said.