This week Bloomberg’s Adam Minter wrote a great article on the plight of the South China Seas coral reefs and their large scale destruction in the name of territorial Claims by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
I have written about this previously (here and here), and I am happy that a professional journalist – for a widely-read news publisher no less – has devoted some time and effort to bringing media coverage to this issue.
Below are some new and interesting insights from extracts of the article ( BloombergView “Victims Under The South China Sea” 26/11/2014).
[…] in the South China Sea, where nations seeking to enforce their territorial claims have not always spent much time worrying about the environmentally and economically valuable reefs under the waves. How valuable? A 2011 report to the UN General Assembly on coral reefs noted that seafaring Asian nations count between 100,000 and “more than” 1 million coral reef fishers among them.
One might think that governments, pressed by those fishermen, would be striving to preserve fragile reef systems. But just the opposite has happened. According to a 2013 study by Australian and Chinese scientists, the South China Sea’s atolls and archipelagos have seen their coral cover decline to 20 percent from averages of 60 percent or more just 10 to 15 years ago.
The large-scale reclamation of reefs for military purposes is just the start of the damage. What happens after can oftentimes be much worse. “If 1,000 soldiers are stationed at any one time in a place, they typically cut down vegetation and cause runoff, generate sewage,” says Terry Hughes, a marine biologist and director of the Queensland-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Draining into the sea, runoff is deadly for coral: In coastal China, where cities also tend to discharge effluent into the ocean, 80 percent of all coral has died off. In 1980, the amount of coral cover near a large Taiwanese military outpost in the disputed Spratly Islands was 60 to 70 percent. By 2007 it had declined to 17 percent, according to the 2013 study, which Hughes led.
That sort of damage is likely to grow more common: In October, Taiwan’s top intelligence official revealed that China has seven ongoing South China Sea construction projects. When complete, they’ll join at least 20 additional reclamations owned by four other South China Sea claimants.
Even worse than the direct damage from construction projects is the political deadlock caused by various territorial disputes. The biggest threat to coral is the large-scale use of cyanide and explosives by the region’s fishermen. As Hughes’s 2013 study pointed out, at just one atoll, the number of fishing boats using cyanide and dynamite to kill fish increased nearly eight-fold between 1996 and 2001. By 2001, “virtually everything harvestable (e.g., fish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms) had been stripped from the atoll.”
Rogue fishermen are the immediate culprits, but a lack of governance and oversight allows them to continue their depredations. While that’s no secret to any of the six South China Sea claimants, they’re unlikely to agree on where or how to protect coral if they can’t agree on boundaries first. Instead individual countries have tried to impose fishing limits unilaterally, which no one else follows. “When it comes time for governance, everyone puts their hand up and that means no one,” says Hughes.
Nonetheless, Hughes remains optimistic, if only because corals can regenerate when protected and given time. (Decades are needed.) He suggests that in the absence of a broader agreement on regulating the South China Sea, scientists from the region might begin the discussion on how to protect reefs. Translating any recommendations into action won’t be easy. But it’s probably the best option for ensuring that soldiers and tourists won’t be the only living creatures left to enjoy the seas.
(Featured image shows structures built on top of Johnson Reef)
A report from US information company IHS has confirmed earlier reports that China has been dredging to create an island about 3,000 metres long and 200-300 metres wide on Fiery Cross Reef in the contested Spratly Islands. The reef, called Yongshu in Chinese, was previously underwater.
In the space of three months China has turned the reef into an island by dredging soil and sand from the seabed and dumping it on top. The island, shown in a satellite image obtained by IHS, will be large enough to accommodate China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands when completed.
“The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope,” the report said.
A harbour is also under construction to the east of the reef, which appears to have the capacity for tankers and naval warships.
The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei. All but Brunei have asserted their own claims by building structures on reefs and shoals.
State-run Global Times said the reclamation projects had been undertaken to improve living conditions for soldiers stationed in the South China Sea, quoting an anonymous commander. The commander said land reclamation was necessary because soldiers had been forced to patrol in sea water as their stations occupied most of the available space on reefs and were too confined.
Boo-hoo, the station is too cramped, so let’s destroy a coral reef by smothering it with sediment. Clearly no one mentioned the environmental damage and loss of fisheries to the military. All this while countries like Australia are trying to save reefs…its sad day for planet Earth again.
In an article published today (21/10/2014) the SCMP details how a disputed reef in the South China Sea has been transformed into the largest island in the Spratlys. (“From reef to biggest island in Spratlys, and China’s not done yet at Fiery Cross“). Coral reefs are the predominant structure of these islands; the Spratly group contains over 600 coral reefs in total.
Fiery Cross – the reef – is China strategically important to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and it has been using reclamation to build it into an island to bolster its claim with a vital outpost for the Chinese military and civilian commercial activities to be based there. Fiery Cross Reef is about 740 nautical miles south of the Chinese mainland, but closer to the Vietnamese coast.
Last week, Taiwan’s top intelligence official, publicly said that Beijing was conducting seven construction projects in the South China Sea.
Wang Hanling, an expert on the South China Sea from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Fiery Cross Reef now nearly covered about 1 sq km and reclamation work would probably continue.
Over the weekend, Chinese website Guancha.cn published a report saying Fiery Cross Reef had been upgraded to an island. It cited unnamed sources and satellite images from DigitalGlobe taken between late September and October 16. It said it was now bigger than Taiping island. However, Jin from Renmin University said it was unlikely the reef would be renamed an island, since it “would involve international law and would be too complicated”.
But among all the discussion of the strategic, military and geographical questions, one issue that should concern us all was completely omitted. The People’s Republic of China has clandestinely destroyed a reef in the South China Sea by dumping sand and rubble onto it and obliterating coral and marine life. All this has only now come out and assessing the damage to get a true picture will be almost impossible because according to China it isn’t doing anything and it’s virtually guaranteed they will not let any foreign scientists visit Fiery Cross. So while the West is doing its best to protect, conserve and rehabilitate reefs, China has just secretly destroyed one. This is the real news item that should have been the focus of the article.