More Chinese ships may be dumping wastes in Spratlys: satellite imagery expert

Zandro Ochona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 15 2021 02:34 PM

MANILA - More ships supposedly from China could be dumping wastes in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in the Spratly Islands, a geospatial imagery expert said on Thursday. 

In an online news forum, Liz Derr, CEO of AI-based satellite image analysis firm Simularity, said that based on their calculations, 2,596 pounds or over a ton of human wastes are being dumped around the Spratly and Paracel Islands every day.

“That was just for the 236 ships that we saw in Union Banks in June," Derr said at the forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

"There were actually more ships in the Spratlys that I didn’t count, the ones in Gaven or Thitu. That was just for Union Banks actually," she added.

Derr said that dumping human wastes are causing algal blooms that degrade and eventually kill the marine ecosystem in those areas.

She reiterated these are most likely Chinese ships based on their satellite observations.

They have been monitoring the presence of these vessels and the overgrowth of algae where the ships are allegedly docked since 2020, she said.

China maintains a constant presence of coastguard and fishing boats in the South China Sea, within which is the West Philippine Sea, to assert its claim of sovereignty, including hundreds in the Spratly islands, where the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also have claims.

Beijing had earlier released photos confirming their presence in the area while other groups tracking these ships confirmed these are part of the Chinese maritime militia, according to Derr. 

Chinese vessels have also been widely documented swarming the West Philippine Sea, found around Chinese outposts.

In 2019, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that Chinese fishing vessels account for the largest number of ships operating in the Spratlys.

“The way that they tied their ships together, the colors of the ships—like that bright orange - that’s really distinctive. Those are the same from when they we photographed at close in March and at what we see now,” Derr said. 

The size of the ships also confirmed they are Chinese vessels.

“The Vietnamese ships that go to their outpost there are typically much smaller actually than the Chinese fishing ships. And we can measure the size of the ships in the satellite imagery. And all of these ships that we’re seeing are usually more than 60 feet long,” she said. 


Meanwhile, Derr explained why she earlier used a photo from an incident at the Great Barrier Reef which caused a stir.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had questioned the photo used in Simularity's report about the alleged human waste dumping incident, even as he said the government will investigate it.

“I put that picture in there because it’s nearly impossible to really grasp the situation when you’re looking at little gray dots on a satellite image,” said Derr.

Immediately after Lorenzana last Tuesday pointed out the photo used, Simularity issued this statement: "We did not use this image in our research. Ships dumping sewage is a common practice. We used it in our report to provide a context for what we were able to view from space. We never claimed it was a picture of a Chinese ship in the Spratlys."

The firm said one media organization misidentified the picture, leading to confusion where it happened.

Derr said during the FOCAP forum that she regretted the incident as it "created a misunderstanding," which somehow thwarted the message of their report.

“I think [it] derailed the message a little bit. Our research is not based on that image. Our research is entirely based on the multi-spectral satellite images that showed the chlorophyll," she said. 


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While it is ordinary that some ships dump wastes in the ocean, what really caught their attention was that these ships were unmoving. 

She encouraged everyone who doubted these algal blooms to continue reading on published scientific evidence.

“I wanted to put some context on what was happening. And ships dump sewage all day, everyday, all over the world. This is not anything special. The fact that they are not moving makes it a concern.”

“It’s a bit of a smoking gun that we are seeing big blooms of plants right where the ships are now. I don’t know, they could be growing a garden out there or something. But I really got no other explanation as to why there’s this bloom of chlorophyll or plants right next to all these ships.”

Derr said she understands the situation is too delicate for her to tell what the Philippine government should do about it.

She, however, “would encourage the ships that are anchored on these reefs, (that) if they have to be anchored here in the Philippine EEZ because that’s really important to them, then anchor somewhere off the reefs.”

These ships, she said, could dump human wastes somewhere else and just come back.

“The waste is the problem, and there are ways to resolve that problem that don’t involve an international incident.”

Philippine authorities have repeatedly raised concerns over China's activities in the West Philippine Sea, particularly militarization efforts, which Beijing has denied.
The country has become more vocal in recent months over the presence of hundreds of vessels it believes are Chinese maritime militias.

Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea continue even as an international arbitration court in 2016 invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea.

- With a report from Reuters


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