MANILA (UPDATE) - Raw sewage from hundreds of ships is being dumped on reefs in the Spratly Islands amid Chinese maritime activity, leading to concentration of unwanted and harmful algae in the maritime area, a geospatial intelligence firm revealed on Monday.
According to Simularity, wastewater is being disposed of in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, based on satellite images taken by the European Space Agency.
"Areas of increased nutrients from sewage effluent are seen on satellite images as areas of increased Chlorophyll-a," the firm said in its report, referring to one of the types of chlorophyll.
"Sewage effluent sources in the Spratly Islands include ship wastewater and human habitation without sufficient sewage treatment. When the ships don’t move, the poop piles up."
Simularity said human waste is behind the increase in Chlorophyll-a in some areas of the Spratly Islands. According to the company, Chlorophyll-a concentration can mean there is harmful algae activity in the maritime territory.
"In water, Chlorophyll-a concentration is a measure of phytoplankton. Excess phytoplankton that cannot be consumed by the reef inhabitants dies off and sinks to the seafloor, where it is consumed by bacteria. These bacteria consume oxygen that would normally be available to the fish, creating a 'dead zone,'" it said.
"On reefs, Chlorophyll-a concentration is a measure of the amount of plant material, such as 'fleshy algae' on the reef. Excess nutrients can speed the growth of 'fleshy algae' that can overtake the coral and destroy the reef habitat."
Based on satellite images by the ESA, Simularity noted there are anchored ships creating Chloropyhll-a "blooms" in the Union Banks, which the Philippines calls Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs, a large atoll within the Spratly Islands.
At least 8 ships were recorded to have left a Chloropyhll-a concentration in the Johnson South Reef, while 18 vessels were seen leaving such trails in Tetley Reef last June 17.
Simularity handout photos
Simularity handout photos
In the last 5 years, there has been an overgrowth of algae in Johnson South Reef, Hughes Reef, Landsowne Reef, Ross Reef, Collins Reef, said Simularity.
"Damaging the Spratlys is actually damaging the future food supply for all the coastal areas and anybody who is fishing in the South China Sea," Simularity CEO Liz Derr told ANC Tuesday.
SIMULARITY: IT GETS WORSE
The firm, which uses AI and Geospatial data to track significant changes in an area, warned of another problem in the Spratly archipelago that will exacerbate the Cholorophyll-a concerns in the maritime area: overfishing.
According to Simularity, the recorded overfishing in the Spratly Islands "removes the primary algae-eaters from the
environment, allowing populations of fleshy algae to explode."
"Fishers' use of rocks as anchors lowers coral cover, giving further competitive advantage to the algae," it said.
"Fleshy algae on reefs release copious amounts of nutrients, which microbes eat. These microbes then endanger corals by depleting oxygen from the environment or by introducing diseases. As the corals die off, the algae have even more space to take over, leading to further coral mortality," Simularity explained.
It also warned of illegal methods still being done by fishermen in the area, like dynamite fishing.
"Dynamite fishing does tremendous damage to reefs, that can take generations to recover from, and hastens the fish stock decline," Simularity said.
In 2019, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that Chinese fishing vessels account for the largest number of ships operating in the Spratlys.
Simularity stressed human activity in the Spratlys is damaging the "coral reefs that supply food for millions of people in the region."
"Damaging these reefs directly affects the fish stocks of the entire South China Sea and can lead to a hunger crisis in coastal regions and a collapse of commercial fishing in the South China Sea.
"This is a catastrophe of epic proportions and we are close to the point of no return."
Simularity called on China to stop its activities in the archipelago.
According to earlier data from published Chinese catch levels, Beijing gets "between 50 and 100 percent of the total estimated catch in the Spratly Islands."
Philippine authorities have repeatedly raised concerns over China's activities in the disputed waters, particularly militarization efforts, which Beijing has denied.
The Philippines and China have long figured in a maritime dispute, as Beijing refuses to recognize a UN-backed arbitral tribunal's ruling that invalidated its sweeping nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea.