South China Sea: Countdown to a new fishing season in troubled waters

Liu Zhen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 13 2021 03:13 PM

Hundreds of Chinese trawlers are expected to head out into the South China Sea on Monday with the start of a new fishing season in waters hotly contested by Beijing and its neighbours.

More than 400 boats were docked in the southern city of Sanya waiting for the end of China’s 3½-month summer fishing moratorium, Sanya Daily reported on Wednesday.

Many more vessels based in other parts of the island of Hainan and provinces around the South China Sea will also be returning to the resource-rich waters.

The trawlers will be competing for catches with fleets from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, which also lay claims to the South China Sea.

Other countries have accused the Chinese fleets of acting as a maritime militia to assert China’s control of the waters – claims that Beijing denies.

Amid the disputes over jurisdiction and aggressive fishing operations by all parties, the marine life in the South China Sea faces serious threats.

In 1999, China phased in a summer fishing moratorium in the waters, gradually extending it from two months to 3½ months.

This year, the moratorium prohibited all fishing except with hand tackle in South China Sea waters, including the Gulf of Tonkin, north of 12 degrees N latitude between May 1 and August 16.

During the break, the trawler crews returned to port to focus on maintenance and resupplying the vessels, hoping to “return with a full house of catch”, according to the Sanya Daily report.

“Last season was very fruitful. I hope that the new season in the second half of the year will keep going again,” fisherman Xie Haili was quoted as saying.

Each boat has to register as part of epidemic prevention controls, and all fishermen registered in Sanya had to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, the report said.

A 25-bed emergency quarantine station had also been prepared in case any foreign crews had to be housed, it added.

In March, the Philippines accused China of having sent up to 200 trawlers to enter waters near the disputed Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands. Beijing said the boats were operating as normal and sheltering in the area from bad weather.

And two years ago, Chinese and Vietnamese maritime militias, working in support of their respective coastguards, clashed near the oil-rich Vanguard Bank.

US researchers such as Andrew Erickson have claimed the Chinese militia are publicly funded, sometimes armed civilians, often in fishing vessels that can use their numerical advantage and rights as fishing vessels to “occupy” an area of sea and prevent access to or drive away other fishing boats. Although civilian, the maritime militia is controlled and organised by the state.

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