MANILA — Scientists from the Philippines, China, and 3 other countries surrounding the South China Sea on Friday urged their governments to rise above territorial disputes and work together to ensure the future supply of fish in the contested area.
The first Common Fisheries Resource Analysis (CFRA) (HLINK: https://www.hdcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/CFRA-Scientific-Paper.pdf), done by over 100 scientists and experts, warned that overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices in the sea could result to fewer catches in coming years unless managed.
“We have to do something. Or else, ‘pag status quo tapos free-for-all, walang cooperation, kahit sino lang basta huli lang nang huli, eventually mauubos ‘yan, magco-collapse. So ano’ng mangyayari sa atin at sa ating mga mangingisda especially? Nganga,” said Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos of the Philippines’ National Fisheries Research and Development Institute (NFRDI).
(If it remains in status-quo—free-for-all, no cooperation, anyone can keep fishing and fishing, eventually it would run out and collapse. So what will happen to us and especially our fisherfolk? Nothing.)
Fish stocks in the South China Sea have decreased by 70 to 95% since the 1950s, according to the CFRA’s report.
DRASTIC ACTION NEEDED
The landmark study conducted from 2018 and 2022 analyzed the stocks of skipjack tuna in the South China Sea based on local catches.
Government-affiliated scientists from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, whose states also have claims in the South China Sea, participated as well.
It revealed that while current fishing levels of adult skipjack tuna are largely sustainable, more fishing equipment are hauling too many juvenile tuna along with adults before the younger tuna can grow and breed.
Skipjack tuna are highly migratory species whose life cycles take them across the different territories.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) also mandates coastal states to cooperate in managing stocks of this particular fish species.
Aside from the impact of overfishing, Santos said climate change will also strain the availability of fish in the region, as warmer waters near the equator could push fish to migrate northward.
“You don’t want to sound alarmist, ‘di ba? Sana mali, sana ‘di magkatotoo, pero based on our studies and pag-uusap and discussion even with the international experts, mukhang kailangan nating may gawin now na, drastic. Otherwise in the near term, maybe 5, 10, 15 years, magkakaproblema tayo,” Santos said.
(I hope it’s wrong, that it won’t happen, but based on our studies, talks, and discussion even with the international experts, we might need to do something drastic now. Otherwise in the near term, maybe 5, 10, 15 years, we will have a problem.)
Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a private diplomacy organization focusing on conflict-stricken areas, supported the study.
Policy officials and analysts reacting to the study said framing the South China Sea dispute via fishing might ultimately help decrease tensions among the countries with rival claims.
China issues a yearly unilateral fishing ban in areas of the South China Sea, which is disputed by countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.
National Security Advisor Clarita Carlos said a regional fishing agreement could be a non-traditional and alternative way to resolve the conflict through what she called a “low-politics” issue.
“Why fish? Because fish is an area which we will not quarrel about… Human nature being what it is, you are more likely to have more commonalities and to have better cooperation outcomes if you talk about less sensitive things,” Carlos said in remarks before the study was
“What I’m hoping is that, when you engage in low-politics cooperation, then you build up trust, you build up confidence, and you build up cordiality and friendship, which after a while become habits of cooperation. And when you have sunk and already are swimming in these habits of cooperation, there will come a time when you have to migrate to high-politics area but you have already embedded among yourselves the habits of cordiality and friendship.”
Carlos added she has been working on a book on this.
Prof. Eric Castillo, a member of the National Security Council, said only a multi-jurisdictional approach would help resolve the fishing problem presented by the study.
“I think it is important for concerned nations to work together. Let us look at fish not as subjects or objects of conflict but as subjects of cooperation because everybody needs [those] resources for survival,” he said.
Dr. Julia Xue Guifang of Shanghai Jiaotong University in China added it was important for scientists to work together with governments in this field.
"We now already have the solid science to support policymakers, to understand the situation, to push the policymakers or practitioners to work really, seriously to resolve the issue," she said.
For Vietnamese Dr. Vu Hai Dang, professor at the National University of Singapore, easing territorial tensions in the South China Sea is only a secondary aim to the joint effort.
“We have to put priority on saving our common resources and protect our common environment. And by that, I mean, to listen to our fish,” he said.
The study only gave general recommendations for policymakers, such as updating domestic policies and intensifying cooperation between nations.
Santos said he hopes future collaborations could put forward specific actions such as decreasing fishing units, implementing a closed season for fishing, and designating protected areas.
“We put aside whatever issues we have because fishes don't know any boundaries, they're being impacted, there are indications that they are declining, and our very future in terms of food supply, and security is at stake,” he said, comparing the challenge to a recent satirical film on the environment.
“Parang ano 'yan (It’s like), ‘Don't Look Up’. It's the same—we are telling this, and hopefully they would listen.” #