Posts Tagged ‘Vietnamese fishermen’

EU gives Vietnam ‘yellow card’ over illegal fishing

October 23, 2017


© AFP/File | The European Union urged Vietnam to curtail the activities of vessels like these, which were anchored together after the Vietnamese fishermen crewing them were detained for illegal fishing in Thai waters by the Royal Marine Police in 2016

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The European Union said Monday it has given a “yellow card” to Vietnam, warning the Pacific country it could ban seafood exports unless Hanoi did more to tackle illegal fishing.The European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, said Vietnam should fix the problem “within a reasonable timeframe” but did not set a deadline.

“We cannot ignore the impact that illegal activities conducted by Vietnamese vessels are having on marine ecosystems in the Pacific,” European fisheries commissioner, Karmenu Vella, said in a statement.

“We invite the Vietnamese authorities to step up their fight so we can reverse this decision quickly,” Vella added.

He said the EU was offering Hanoi technical support to stop the problem, urging steps to “rectify the situation within a reasonable timeframe.”

The commission said Vietnam lacked “an effective system” to punish illegal or unreported fishing and did too little to stop Vietnamese vessels in the waters of neighbouring small island countries.

Vietnam ranks among the top ten world producers of seafood products, according to the FAO, the UN food and agriculture organisation.

The commission can go as far as handing a red card to a third country that fails to curb illegal fishing and eventually impose a trade ban on fishery products.

The EU, the world’s biggest fish importer, adopted the regulation that took effect in 2010 in a bid to avoid being complicit in illegal fishing and promote sustainable use of the sea.



Opinion: Vietnam Is Becoming Asia’s Most Aggressive Maritime Nation After China

October 6, 2017

By Ralph Jennings

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Activists chant anti-China slogans during a rally in Hanoi on March 14, 2016, to mark the anniversary of a 1988 battle in the Spratly Islands, a rare act of protest over an issue that has come to dog relations between Hanoi and Beijing. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

China has stoked many of Asia’s maritime sovereignty disputes by reclaiming land to build artificial islands and, in some cases, adding military infrastructure to those islands. To rub in the message that it has the more power than anyone else in the widely disputed, 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, the Beijing government glibly sails coast guard ships around the exclusive ocean economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Off its east coast, China routinely passes boats through a tract of sea disputed with, and controlled by Japan.

But let’s linger on another country for a second – Vietnam.

A fisherman and his son try to fix the roof of their boat on Thuan Phuoc port in prior to the next fishing trip on August 30, 2016 in Danang, Vietnam. (AFP/Getty image)

The country with a 3,444 kilometer-long coastline shows every sign of being Asia’s second most expansion-minded maritime power after China.

Here’s the evidence:

  • Last year the American Center for Strategic & International Studies said Vietnam had landfilled more South China Sea islets than China itself, though China’s method was probably more destructive. It holds 21 tiny islets in the Spratly archipelago, more than any of its regional rivals.


  • This year Vietnam renewed a deal with the overseas subsidiary of state-owned Indian oil firm ONGC to explore for fossil fuels under the ocean floor. Beijing will likely bristle at this move because it too claims waters off the Vietnamese east coast as part of its position that 95% of the whole sea is Chinese, but Vietnam has not backed down. In any case, India is Vietnam’s new best friend — to wit its call in July to step up a year-old partnership.


  • Vietnamese fishing boats, a large share of the 1.72 million that trawl the South China Sea, have been sent off by other coastal states and as far off as Indonesia and Thailand, scholars who follow the maritime dispute say. Two Vietnamese fishermen turned up dead 34 kilometers from the Philippines last month in what’s believed to be an incident involving an official vessel from Manila. Fish were 10% of Vietnam’s export revenues as of a decade ago, the University of British Columbia says in this study. “Fish stocks in Vietnam have been depleted, so they have to venture further away to continue their business,” says Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “As they venture further away it’s easier for them to get into other countries’ waters and they commit illegal fishing.”


  • Vietnam protests when Taiwan makes its presence felt on Taiping Island. Although Taiping is the largest feature in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago, Taiwan has little clout in the bigger sovereignty dispute and has even used its Taiping facilities to help Vietnamese fishermen in distress. But the Vietnamese foreign ministry formally protested at least once in 2016 and again in March this year when Taiwan had a live-fire military drill. “They said Taiwan’s activities violated its sovereignty,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the College of International Affairs at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Whenever Taiwan makes a move, Vietnam always protests. It’s been like that all along. Vietnam is pretty assertive.”


  • China has to watch it, too. China is using economic incentives to get along with other South China Sea states but things keep going wrong with Vietnam. In June, a senior Chinese military official cut short his visit to Vietnam as the host was looking for oil in disputed waters, and in August foreign ministers from the two countries cancelled a meeting – presumably over their maritime disputes — on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations event.

Vietnam’s maritime muscle makes a lot of sense. The country of 93 million people is on the move economically, dependent on the sea. Nationalism is growing, too, and citizens believe the government should gun hard for its claims.


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China says it has sovereignty over all the South China Sea north of its “nine dash line.” On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration  in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid. But China and the Philippine government then chose to ignore international law.



Philippine Navy at fault in death of 2 Vietnamese fishermen, probe finds

October 1, 2017
Investigators cited a 1999 ruling of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea as it found that the Philippine Navy was at fault for the deaths of the Vietnamese fishermen, a source told Vera FIles. The ITLOS ruling states that: “In the conduct of arrest, use of excessive and unreasonable force in stopping and arresting a vessel such as firing with live ammunition using shots from large–caliber automatic guns must be avoided, and where force is unavoidable, it must not go beyond what is reasonable and necessary in the circumstances.”  Vera Files

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Navy is at fault in the death of two fishermen during a sea chase in the waters of Pangasinan on September 22, a source privy to the investigation of the incident said.

Investigators, the source said, cited a 1999 ruling of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) that states: “In the conduct of arrest, use of excessive and unreasonable force in stopping and arresting a vessel such as firing with live ammunition using shots from large–caliber automatic guns must be avoided, and where force is unavoidable, it must not go beyond what is reasonable and necessary in the circumstances.”

READ: 2 Vietnamese dead, 5 arrested in chase with Philippine Navy

The Philippine Coast Guard, which is investigating the incident, took note that the incident happened 39 nautical miles off Bolinao in Pangasinan, which was within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, the source further said.

“Under the Law of the Sea Convention, in the EEZ, the Philippines does not have Sovereignty but only Sovereign Rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources found therein. This means that the Philippines cannot enforce its laws including the Revised Penal Code except only its laws and regulations relating to fisheries and marine environmental protection,” explained the source.

The Philippine Navy announced September 26 that the officers involved in the incident were relieved as the Department of Foreign Affairs assured Vietnam a fair and thorough investigation into the deaths.

“We would like to offer our sympathies over the unfortunate loss of life and give you our assurance that we will conduct a fair and thorough investigation into this matter,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said.

READ: Philippines to probe death of 2 Vietnamese fishermen in sea chase

The VERA Files source said based on the interview with the Vietnamese fishing boat captain, at about 11 in the evening on September 22, while the Vietnamese fishing boat was anchored 39 nautical miles off Bolinao, an unidentified vessel sailed towards their direction. Immediately, they cut their anchor net and scampered away towards the direction of Vietnam because they were afraid the approaching vessel was a pirates’ ship.

The Vietnamese heard 10 gunshots fired towards both sides of their fishing boat. It was only after a 30-minute chase, when the pursuing vessel was approximately three to five meters away that it was identified as the BRP Miguel Malvar (PS 19).

“At that very near distance, the PN vessel continued to fire at fishing boat killing two of the six crew who were hiding inside the cargo hold area located at the forward portion of the boat. The Navy officers arrested the remaining fishermen for poaching and brought them to Sual in Pangasinan,” the source said.

A photo of the BRP Miguel Malvar. Vera Files

Maritime expert Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said it is too early to decide whether the Philippine Navy may be sanctioned.

“Whether or not the use of deadly force is justified is a separate question,” he told VERA Files in an interview. “That is supposed to be determined in the investigation,” he added, noting that whether disciplinary actions will be taken against those who fired is separate from poaching.

However, lawyer Romel Bagares, executive director of the Center for International Law, pointed out that the Philippine crew, all state agents, are covered by state immunity.

A case, he said, “may only be proceeded against in a criminal procedure by a Philippine court, unless the Philippines has expressly waived such immunity in favor of a Vietnamese court.”

Bagares added: “The Philippines has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction to do so under established international law.”

“If the Philippines imposes an unreasonable bond for the prompt release of ship and crew and refuses to pay reparations for the two deaths, Vietnam may file the appropriate action before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea,” Bagares said.

What the Navy did as part of its law enforcement was “justified,” as it happened within the 200-nautical mile EEZ of the Philippines, Batongbacal maintained.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Philippines has sovereign rights on its 200 nautical mile EEZ, where the country has exclusive rights to “explore and exploit natural resources” found in the area.

“Any foreign vessel that is found fishing in the (EEZ) is considered to be committing the crime of poaching,” Batongbacal said.

Although sovereign rights are “less than sovereignty,” as Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had earlier said, they retain a country’s exclusive and superior rights above other states.

Sovereignty bestows full rights on a country within the 12-nautical mile stretch of its territorial waters measured from the baseline. Beyond it is the EEZ governed by the Philippines’ sovereign rights, which give power for a country to take measures like arresting vessels and their crews under Article 73 of UNCLOS.

But this distinction is beside the point, Batongbacal said. As far as the law is concerned, the Vietnamese fishermen violated the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, he added.

Under Section 87 of the law, it is unlawful for foreign entities to operate their fishing vessels in Philippine waters. Any entry shall already constitute a prima facie evidence.

“The law already presumes them to be engaged in poaching. It’s the Vietnamese who must show proof that they were not fishing,” Batongbacal said.

The law penalizes offenders with a fine not exceeding $100,000, or P5,093,400, and confiscation of the catch, fishing paraphernalia and vessel.

The VERA Files source, however, said it would be difficult to establish and prove that the Vietnamese fishermen committed poaching because there are circumstances that must first be met before a foreign vessel’s activity can be considered poaching.

Vietnam is an ally of the Philippines, notably when it supported its position against China before the Arbitral Tribunal, which later ruled China’s claim to resources in the South China Sea had no legal basis and its nine-dash line invalid.

In 2015, the Philippines signed a strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam that reaffirmed “their commitment to resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means.”

Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, former maritime officer, said in a September 26 press release the incident happened because of the absence of a clear direction in handling the maritime situation.

It “gives us a picture of the dangers and tension in the area amid territorial disputes and competition over resources,” he said.

He called on the administration to come up with a strategy that would provide policies and guide actions for all stakeholders, especially the fishermen.


VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

2 Vietnamese fishermen killed in South China Sea incident with the Philippine Navy

September 24, 2017

5 other Vietnamese fishermen are arrested off the coast of Bolinao, Pangasinan

Published 5:45 PM, September 24, 2017
Updated 8:25 PM, September 24, 2017
ILLEGAL FISHING? Two Vietnamese fisherman were killed while 5 others were arrested on Saturday, September 23, some 60 nautical miles off the coast of Bolinao, Pangasinan.

ILLEGAL FISHING? Two Vietnamese fisherman were killed while 5 others were arrested on Saturday, September 23, some 60 nautical miles off the coast of Bolinao, Pangasinan.

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Two Vietnamese fishermen were killed while 5 others were arrested on Saturday, September 23, in an incident with the Philippine Navy in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Rappler learned.

Lieutenant Jose Covarrubias, spokesman of the Naval Forces Northern Luzon, said the bodies of the two Vietnamese nationals were found aboard a foreign fishing vessel that trespassed into Philippine waters to illegally fish inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The incident happened about 34 nautical miles from the town of Bolinao in Pangasinan. Covarrubias said the fishermen were using strong lights to lure fish.

Covarrubias did not give further details on the deaths of the Vietnamese nationals. He said the 5 others who were found on the same fishing vessel were arrested and turned over to the local police.

Sources said a Philippine Navy vessel was moving towards the Vietnamese fishing vessel to arrest the fishermen at about 2 am on Saturday when a chase ensued. The Vietnamese fishing boat reportedly rammed the Philippine Navy vessel.

It is not clear how the two Vietnamese died but initial reports indicate an exchange of gunfire. Covarrubias said they are verifying the information.

Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado told Rappler that he has ordered an investigation into what happened.

Covarrubias said the Philippine Navy and the Philippine National Police are conducting a joint probe. –

Vietnam asks Indonesia to investigate South China Sea shooting

July 29, 2017


JULY 28, 2017 / 9:43 AM

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam has asked Indonesia to investigate and clarify reports that the Indonesian navy shot and wounded two Vietnamese fishermen in the South China Sea.

Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh told Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi by telephone that the reported incident was “very serious … and not appropriate with the strategic partnership relationship between Vietnam and Indonesia,” the Vietnamese foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

“Vietnam is deeply concerned about this incident and proposes Indonesia to quickly investigate and clarify the incident and inform Vietnam of the results and to stop repeating similar acts,” Minh was quoting as saying.

Earlier this week, a local Vietnamese sea rescue committee said Indonesia’s navy had shot and wounded the Vietnamese fishermen last weekend.

The Vietnamese boat was about 132 nautical miles (245 km) southeast of Con Dao island when the fishermen were shot on Saturday night, the Binh Dinh provincial search and rescue committee said on its website.

The report was pulled off the website the next day.

Indonesia’s foreign minister told Reuters the information provided by her country’s navy on the incident was different and said illegal fishing involving Vietnam had been a long-term issue.

Marsudi said in a text message she had underlined to Vietnam’s foreign minister the importance of the countries settling negotiations on their exclusive economic zones. She said the two would meet in Manila during a regional forum next month.

The Indonesian navy has yet to comment on the incident.

Disputes over fishing rights and oil drilling have stoked tension in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in goods is shipped each year.

China claims almost the entire sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.

Although Indonesia says it is not a party to the dispute, it recently renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone, asserting its own maritime claim.

The coordinates given by the Vietnamese search and rescue committee indicated that the shooting happened close to the area Indonesia now calls the North Natuna Sea.

Indonesia has sunk hundreds of mostly foreign boats caught illegally fishing in its waters since President Joko Widodo launched a crackdown on the poaching of fish in 2014.

Indonesia and Vietnam said in May they would launch a joint investigation after reports that Vietnamese coast guards had tried to forcibly free five fishing boats and their crew detained in waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Reporting by Mai Nguyen; Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe and Agustinus Boa Da Costa in Jakarta; Editing by Catherine Evans and Kim Coghill

Indonesia Catches Two Vietnamese Fishing Boats in Indonesian Waters of South China Sea

July 25, 2017

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s navy said it fired a warning shot at two Vietnamese fishing vessels that were discovered in Indonesian waters over the weekend in the second clash between the two countries in the South China Sea in two months.

Navy spokesman Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta said the Vietnamese boats were four nautical miles inside Indonesian territory when intercepted by an Indonesian warship on Sunday. He denied media reports that four Vietnamese fishermen were injured.

In a statement released Monday evening, Sipasulta said the two vessels sailed toward the bow of the KRI Wiranto-379, which fired a warning shot, causing the Vietnamese to immediately head for international waters.

Image result for Kapitan Pattimura class, warships, indonesia, photos

Indonesia has a wide range of coast guard and navy ships

Several Vietnamese fishing vessels escaped Indonesian interception in May following a show of force by Vietnam’s coast guard in the South China Sea, where China’s expansive territorial claims overlap with the waters of several Southeast Asian nations.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago with more than 13,000 islands, has become increasingly assertive in defending its maritime territory and exclusive economic zone.

It has destroyed hundreds of foreign fishing vessels caught in its territory and earlier this month said it had renamed the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea.

Experts said that move was aimed at protecting its exclusive economic zone north of the Natuna island chain, which overlaps with China’s nine-dash line that roughly demarcates its claim to the South China Sea.


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Indonesian Deputy Minister for Maritime Affairs Arif Havas Oegroseno (C) stands in front of a new map of Indonesia during talks with reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta

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Indonesia’s Deputy Minister for Maritime Affairs Arif Havas Oegroseno points at the location of North Natuna Sea on a new map of Indonesia during talks with reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta

 (Contains links to several more related articles)

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May 2017 — Vietnam Coast Guard 8005 vessel allegedly hits a Vietnamese-flagged fishing boat, which had been caught by Indonesian authorities for alleged poaching in Indonesian waters. The boat sinks and Indonesian patrol personnel Gunawan Wibisono guarding it is held hostage by the Vietnamese authorities. (The Jakarta Post/Source)

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For about five years China has been loudly proclaiming “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea.” China has said, everything north of the “nine dash line” shown here, essentially, belongs to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid. But China chose to ignore international law.

South China Sea: One of the World’s Biggest Fisheries Is on the Verge of Collapse

March 26, 2017

South China Sea’s most important resource – its fish – is disappearing

Major disputes in the South China Sea are putting critical habitat—and the food supply of millions—at risk.

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Dock workers use cranes to off-load frozen tuna from a Chinese-owned cargo vessel at the General Santos Fish Port, in the Philippines. Tuna stocks in the South China Sea have plummeted in recent years because of overfishing. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

By Rachael Bale
National Geographic

PUERTO PRINCESA, PHILIPPINES — Years ago Christopher Tubo caught a 660-pound blue marlin in the South China Sea. The fishing was good there, he says. Tuna fishermen would come home from a trip with dozens of the high-value fish as well as a good haul of other species.

“Here there’s none of that,” he says, looking toward the Sulu Sea, the Philippine sea where he’s been fishing for the past four years. His two boats, traditional Filipino outriggers called bancas, float in the shallow water nearby, new coats of white paint drying in the sun.

Tubo is sitting on a wooden bench in front of his home, which perches on stilts above the bay. One of his four kids wraps an arm around his leg. Worn T-shirts and shorts flutter on clotheslines behind them.

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A worker carries a line-caught yellowfin tuna at the General Santos Fish Port, which is known as the “tuna capital of the Philippines.” The South China Sea, through which tuna migrate, produces more fish than almost anywhere else, but it has been severely overfished and is nearing collapse. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic
Glancing over at his wife, Leah, and the other children, he says, “It’s just chance, whether or not we can feed our families now.”

Tubo lives in Puerto Princesa, a city of 255,000 on Palawan, a long finger of an island that faces the Sulu Sea and the Philippine archipelago to the east and the contested South China Sea to the west. He’s one of the nearly 320,000 fishermen in the Philippines who have traditionally made their livelihoods from the South China Sea—and one of a growing number who are now fishing in other waters because of increasing Chinese interference. Beginning around 2012, China adopted a more assertive posture in the sea’s long-running territorial dispute, building military installations on contested islands and increasingly using its coast guard to intimidate fishermen from other countries.

It was after a Chinese coast guard vessel attacked a friend’s fishing boat with water cannons that Christopher Tubo stopped fishing the South China Sea.

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Filipino fishermen aboard the Ninay haul in sardines and scad in national waters near the South China Sea. The territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea have increased competition for dwindling fish stocks of all species.  Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic
“One minute you’ll see an airplane, the next thing there’s a naval boat,” he says, describing how the Chinese attempt to keep fishermen from other countries out of the disputed area. “If we kept going over there, maybe we won’t be able to go home to our families.”

“As they see it, it’s theirs now, and Filipinos are forbidden,” says Henry Tesorio, an elected councilor for a fishing village in Puerto Princesa.

Vietnamese fishermen could say the same thing. Some 200 Vietnamese from the island of Ly Son, 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the mainland, reported being attacked by Chinese boats in 2015, according to local Vietnamese government officials.

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The lights on the Melissa attract fish toward the boat and up to the surface. A storm later forced the boat to return to Quezon, a fishing village on the island of Palawan, in the Philippines. Fishermen from the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and elsewhere all fish the South China Sea.  Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

Tubo’s decision not to fish in the South China Sea speaks to the rising tensions in the region, which are causing fierce competition for natural resources. Encompassing 1.4 million square miles (3.7 million square kilometers), the South China Sea is of critical economic, military, and environmental importance: $5.3 trillion in international trade plies its waters annually; in terms of biodiversity, it is thought of as the marine equivalent of the Amazon rain forest; and its fish provide food and jobs for millions in the 10 countries and territories that surround it.

Of those, seven—China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia—have competing claims to the sea’s waters and resources. So it’s understandable why all eyes have been focused on the political and military wrangling. If war broke out over these claims, it would pit two superpowers, China and the United States—a longtime Philippine ally and guarantor of freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean—against each other.

South China Sea map. Credit Center for Strategic and International Studies

But another less publicized, also potentially disastrous, threat looms in the South China Sea: overfishing. This is one of the world’s most important fisheries, employing more than 3.7 million people and bringing in billions of dollars every year. But after decades of free-for-all fishing, dwindling stocks now threaten both the food security and economic growth of the rapidly developing nations that draw on them.

China argues that it has a right to almost the entire South China Sea because it says it has historically exercised jurisdiction in that area, which China delineates on maps with a U-shaped “nine-dash” line (see map). Every other disputant in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, bases its maritime claims on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement that defines maritime zones.

Opposing Beijing’s expansionist claims, in 2013 the Philippines brought a case against China before an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration—a forum for settling international disputes—in The Hague, Netherlands. China refused to participate. On July 12, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on almost all its claims, declaring that China forfeited the possibility of any historically based rights when it ratified the UN convention in 1996. China has vowed to ignore the ruling.

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Crew members take shelter from a storm aboard the Ninay. Filipino fishermen have reported increasing interference from Chinese coast guard vessels in the South China Sea. China claims most of the South China Sea for itself.  Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic
Competition for fish has exacerbated the dispute, and the dispute has intensified competition among fishermen, further depleting fish. Some parts of the South China Sea have less than a tenth of the stocks they had five decades ago. And high-value fish such as tuna and grouper are becoming scarcer.

“What we’re looking at is potentially one of the world’s worst fisheries collapses ever,” says John McManus, a marine biologist at the Rosenstiel School at the University of Miami who studies the region’s reefs.

.“We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of species that will collapse, and they’ll collapse relatively quickly, one after another.”


Fishermen on the Front Lines

As coastal waters are depleted, fishermen have been forced to venture farther offshore and into disputed waters to make a living. China has seized this as an opportunity to bolster its claims by aggressively supporting its fishermen. Beijing has consolidated the coast guard, militarized fishing fleets, and begun offering subsidies for bigger and better boats, water, and fuel. There’s even a special subsidy specifically for fishermen to fish in the contested Spratly Islands, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south.

“The only reason that smaller [Chinese] fishermen go out to the Spratlys is because they’re paid to do so,” says Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Center for Strategic Studies. This extra pressure has sped up the depletion of fish stocks, he says.

The Chinese have also been building artificial islands atop reefs in the Spratlys to support military installations there. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” says Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and maritime security at the National War College, in Washington, D.C. “China is trying to enforce its sovereignty through the construction of these islands and by denying other countries access to natural resources.”

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A couple sits outside a home built over the water in Quezon, where most people have family members who work as fishermen. Overfishing has put the livelihoods of many Filipinos at risk. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

Eugenio Bito-onon, Jr.—until recently the mayor of the Kalayaan municipality, which includes islands in the Spratlys—is an outspoken advocate for the Philippines’ claims. Bito-onon and I met in the island’s cramped satellite office in Puerto Princesa, where he had a gigantic map of the South China Sea marked up with his own handwritten labels and colored dots showing which countries claim which features.

He pulls up Google Earth on his laptop and finds Thitu, an island in the Spratlys known locally as Pag-asa, where about 200 Filipinos, including a small number of troops, live part-time, their presence demonstrating the Philippines’ claim to the island. Rice, clothing, soap, and other necessities must be brought in by boat or airlift, and two government-owned generators are the only source of electricity. Bito-onon points out just how close Chinese-claimed Subi Reef is to Thitu. So close, he says, that on a clear day residents can see it on the horizon.

Even closer, though, are Chinese fishing boats, which he says have fished the reefs empty. “For the past three years, [the Chinese] never leave,” Bito-onon says from behind his laptop, now displaying satellite imagery of reefs around Thitu. “Chinese fishing boats come and go, replacing each other,” he says, but there are never not boats within sight of the island.

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A Filipino fisherman wades from boat to shore with part of the crew’s catch. Fishermen who go to the South China Sea report that their catches have gotten smaller in recent years. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

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The Navotas Fish Port in Manila is the largest in the Philippines. The markets at the port trade in seafood from freshwater farms, national waters, and international waters, including the South China Sea. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

Gilbert Elefane, the Filipino captain of a tuna boat based in the municipality of Quezon, on Palawan, says he now sees up to a hundred boats, many Chinese, on a single two-week fishing trip in the South China Sea. Just a few years ago, he says he’d have seen no more than 30.

Beijing has provided military training and sophisticated GPS and communications technology to its fishermen so they can call in the coast guard if they have a run-in with a foreign law enforcement vessel or alert the coast guard of the presence of fishermen from other countries.

In the face of China’s island building, Vietnam has done some small-scale land reclamation of its own in an attempt to bolster its capacity in the Spratlys. Its efforts, however, have been less destructive than China’s.

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A dock worker uses a mallet to dislodge frozen tuna aboard a Chinese cargo vessel docked at the city of General Santos in the Philippines. The cargo vessel spends up to two months at sea with a fleet of a dozen tuna boats working to fill its freezer. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

As long as the conflict in the South China Sea continues, it will be nearly impossible to regulate fishing.

When one country tries to protect its fishing grounds, tensions flare. In March, for instance, Indonesian maritime law enforcement officials arrested eight Chinese on charges of illegal fishing. The fishermen were less than three miles (five kilometers) from Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. The Natunas themselves are not in dispute, but the waters north of them, which are particularly rich in gas, have become a new flashpoint. Under international law they’re Indonesian, but they partially overlap with China’s nine-dash line claims, so China says it has a right to fish there.

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A pregnant woman wades in the dirty water near the Navotas Fish Port. The Philippines’ economy relies heavily on fishing and the seafood trade, as do most of the countries around the South China Sea. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

When Indonesia’s vessel began towing the Chinese boat back to port, an armed Chinese coast guard ship appeared and began ramming the Chinese boat to break it free. The Indonesians were forced to let the boat go and retreat.

“It’s unclear whose laws you’re enforcing when you have seven overlapping sets of fisheries laws,” Poling says. “States have a vested interest in purposely violating fishing laws of other states.”

That’s because abiding by another country’s fishing law is tantamount to accepting that that country has jurisdiction over that region, which no country has been willing to do.

In 2012, a Philippine navy warship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, about 138 miles (220 kilometers) from the Philippine coast, on suspicion of illegal fishing and poaching rare corals, giant clams, and sharks. A Chinese coast guard ship interfered to prevent the arrests, forcing a standoff. After 10 weeks both sides agreed to withdraw, but once the Philippines left, China remained, effectively seizing control of the shoal.

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A fisherman at the General Santos Fish Port carries a yellowfin tuna caught in the South China Sea. Fishermen say the fish they catch now are smaller than before.  Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic


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Workers at the Navotas Fish Port unload and sort fish from commercial boats that have returned from the South China Sea, where overfishing has exacerbated the land and sea disputes in the region. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

As Filipino fishermen have seen their catches—and the fish themselves—getting smaller, they’ve increasingly been resorting to dangerous, illegal fishing methods. Blast fishing, which Filipinos call “bong bong” fishing, involves setting off homemade bombs underwater to kill dozens of fish at one time. Cyanide fishing, which involves squirting fish in the face with poison to stun them, is used to catch live reef fish to supply high-end live seafood restaurants in Hong Kong and other large Asian cities. Both practices kill coral and other fish, collateral damage that’s pushing the sea ever closer to an overfishing crisis.

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Dock workers at the Navotas Fish Port sort through mussels. If the South China Sea fishery were to collapse, it would threaten the food supply of millions. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic
China’s island building and giant clam poaching have caused most of them documented reef destruction in the South China Sea, an area totaling 62 square miles (163 square kilometers). Island building grinds up corals for use as foundation material, smothers reefs that become the base of islands, and creates sediment plumes that suffocate nearby reefs. Dredging to deepen ports also causes serious damage. And poaching of giant clams entails grinding up corals to loosen the shells from the reef.

“It’s quite possible we’re seeing a serious decline in about half of the reefs,” John McManus, the marine biologist, says. “That’s what I expect will happen, if it hasn’t happened already. It’s just total destruction.”

When a reef is destroyed, the ecosystem unravels. Reef fish lose their habitat, and pelagic fish such as tuna lose an important source of food. Furthermore, reefs in the South China Sea are connected. Fish larvae from one reef ride the current across the sea to repopulate another reef. If a reef disappears, so does that source of larvae, increasing the chance that local extirpations of fish species will be permanent.

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Dock workers and fishermen buy food from a street vendor at the Navotas Fish Port, in Manila. Some 320,000 Filipinos fish the South China Sea, and many more work on the docks, as fish packers, and as seafood traders, among other jobs.  Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic

McManus says that many of the damaged reefs will be able to recover in a decade or two—if the island building and destructive giant clam poaching stop. He champions the idea of a “peace park,” a kind of marine protected area where all countries would put a freeze on their claims and halt all activities, like island building, that bolster those claims.

Experts also say cooperative regional management could go a long way toward making the South China Sea fishery sustainable. It would require dramatic cutbacks in the number of fishing boats and restrictions on fishing methods such as the use of huge fishing vessels that use powerful lights at night to attract tuna. All this would in turn mean helping fishermen find other ways to earn a living.

Under a sustainable management plan, tuna and mackerel could recover 17-fold by 2045, Rashid Sumaila and William Cheung at the University of British Columbia predicted in a 2015 report. Reef fish would recover up to 15 percent, and the catch and value of reef fish would also increase. Sharks and groupers, which are also high-value fish, would make a comeback too.

But Poling, of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, questions whether such a plan will happen in time. “What that requires is setting aside the disputes,” he says. “It’s possible—it’s just not likely. In order to have a successful joint management system, the first step is to agree on what area you’re talking about.” With China clinging to its nine-dash line while other countries base their claims on international law, agreement just won’t be possible, he says.

As it now stands, the South China Sea’s most important resource—its fish—is disappearing, and countries are either passively standing by or actively encouraging their fishermen to take more.

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Children fish at dusk in the fishing community of Quezon in the Philippines. Fishermen here ply their trade in national waters and the South China Sea. Credit Adam Dean, National Geographic
Aurora Almendral contributed to this report.

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Coming Tuesday: China’s giant clam poaching is decimating reefs in the South China Sea.

Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to


We at Peace and Freedom have catalogued much of the history of recent events and issues around the South China Sea for the past five years. Use these keywords to see more:

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 — From March 25, 2017 with links to other related articles

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A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a Philippine supply boat engage in a stand off as the Philippine boat attempts to reach the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea a reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jay Directo )


A Vietnamese fisherman repairs his vessel after it was rammed by a Chinese patrol ship that it protecting the waters around a disputed oil rig in the South China Sea, May 18, 2014. (

A Vietnamese fisherman repairs his vessel after it was rammed by a Chinese patrol ship that it protecting the waters around a disputed oil rig in the South China Sea, May 18, 2014. (

Chủ tàu Trần Văn Quang và chiếc mỏ neo bị tàu lạ đâm lút vào mũi tàu. Ảnh: Đức Nguyễn.

Vietnamese fishing boat Captain Tran Van Quang

Chủ tàu Trần Văn Quang và chiếc mỏ neo bị tàu lạ đâm lút vào mũi tàu. Ảnh: Đức Nguyễn.


Outrage: Vietnamese and Filipino protesters outside the Chinese Consulate at the financial district of Makati city to protest the recent moves by China to construct an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea

Outrage: Vietnamese and Filipino protesters outside the Chinese Consulate at the financial district of Makati city, the Philippines, to protest the recent moves by China to construct an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea


 (This    article has links to several  others related to environmental issues in the South China Sea).

A green sea turtle is seen off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

A green sea turtle.(Reuters)

 (Includes Obama creates largest ocean reserve, takes heat for new federal decrees)

 (Has links to many related conservation and environmental articles)

 (Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reports)

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Filipino activists and Vietnamese nationals display placards and chant anti-China slogans as they march outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila’s Makati financial district on May 16, 2014. Several hundred Filipino and Vietnamese protesters united in a march in the Philippine capital on Friday, May 16, 2014, demanding that China stop oil drilling in disputed South China Sea waters. — PHOTO: REUTERS


 (August 25, 2016)

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China’s Tian Jing Hao – Cutter suction dredger — Used to destroy South China Sea coral reefs to provide dredge material for new man made- islands — an environmental disaster

 (Contains links to several related articles)

August 17, 2015

ANOTHER set of a dredge floater assembly with Chinese markings found in the Zambales sea is pulled to the shore of the capital town of Iba on Sunday. The first set of dredge floaters was found by local fishermen off Cabangan, Zambales province, in July. ALLAN MACATUNO/INQUIRER CENTRAL LUZON



An elderly Vietnamese protester holds a placard during an anti-China protest in front of the Chinese consulate in the financial district of Manila on May 16, 2014. Several hundred Filipino and Vietnamese protesters united in a march in the Philippine capital on May 16, demanding that China stop oil drilling in disputed South China Sea waters. Many Vietnamese remain uneasy with China in the South china sea till this day.  AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

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The End of an era?  Fishermen work to unload a net full of anchovies during a fishing expedition in the Pacific Ocean. Photo AP



Chinese fishing boats dominating West Africa’s seas — Environmentalists say they are depleting the fishing stocks — “Chinese are spreading in the world, more than I ever imagined”

November 25, 2016


“The amount of fish caught by Chinese ships around the world may actually be 12 times what China was reporting to the UN Food and Agriculture program.”


Chinese and African fishermen in a boat off Western Africa

Life on a boat off of Guinea Bissau. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
November 23, 2016 Quartz Africa

Fishermen in the Chinese fleets that ply the waters off the coast of West Africa spend between 20 and 30 days aboard a boat, where their biggest concerns are typhoons, getting caught in the machinery and ropes used to pull hauls of fish in, and boredom that they try to alleviate by sleeping, smoking, and reading between shifts.

That’s the world that Yuyang Liu, 25, a self-taught Chinese photographer, spent over a month in this summer, when he went to Senegal and Mauritania to document the influx of Chinese fishing fleets for the nonprofit Greenpeace. Liu, from Shanghai, was impressed by the extent of Chinese operations in the region. “Chinese are spreading in the world, more than I ever imagined,” he says.

China is now the largest fishing power in West Africa, home to more than 500 Chinese industrial fishing fleets in seas once dominated by Russian and European operations, according to Greenpeace. Environmentalists say the waters can’t support this level of fishing for long, and that local fishermen will eventually be left with nothing to catch.

“Without improvement on regional fishery management and industry fishing vessels’ performances, including Chinese and EU vessels, the depletion of West Africa’s ocean will only be an issue of timing,” says Wenjing Pan, a researcher for Greenpeace. “After the fish and fishing giants have both gone, local fishermen will face big challenges earning their livelihood.”

Staff on a ship near Guinea-Bissau try to release a strut that has become stuck. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
A Chinese engineer bathes on the deck of a fishing vessel off the coast of Guinea-Bissau. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
A Chinese fishermen and three local sailors clean recently caught shark. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
Chinese and local sailors take a break between shifts on board a fishing vessel off the coast of Guinea Bissau. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)

Since Chinese fishing vessels began arriving in West Africa in the 1980s, reported catches have increased almost twelve-fold to 3.6 million tonnes in 2009—from just 300,000 tonnes in 1950, according to Greenpeace. Illegal fishing is also becoming more common: Over the course of 26 days, Greenpeace reported witnessing 16 cases of illegal fishing by Chinese vessels, mainly fishing in prohibited areas off the coast of Guinea.

Local fishermen told Liu that fishing has become harder for them since the Chinese fleets moved in. Unable to compete with the machinery and size of Chinese operations, they have to travel farther out to find new catches. Many vie for jobs on the Chinese-run trawlers.

Local fishermen in Senegal cast their nets. Other than a motor and GPS, their boat lacks any modern equipment. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
Local fishermen beat the sides of their boat and sing traditional songs as they pull their nets in. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
Chief mate Wang of a boat in the Atlantic naval territory of Guinea-Bissau passes cigarettes to local sailors. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
Liu Zhaoquan, who works in a fish meal factory in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, eats Chinese dishes from his native Shandong province in the factory canteen. Liu returns home only once every two years. The canteen food is one of the few reminders of home.
Liu Zhaoquan eats Chinese food at the canteen of a fish meal factory in Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Liu returns home only once every two years.(Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
Artisanal fishermen sell their wares in Joal Fadiouth, Senegal, as night falls. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)
After a whole night out at sea, artisanal fisherman return to Senegal’s largest fishing port, Joal Fadiouth. (Greenpeace/Liu Yuyang)

China’s global fishing operations, which have grown as fish stocks in China’s waters have shrunk, are a broader concern. China’s long-distance fishing fleet, numbering over 2,000 vessels, is ten times the size of America’s, according to a Greenpeace report in August. And a European Parliament report in 2013 estimated that the amount of fish caught by Chinese ships around the world may actually be 12 times what China was reporting to the UN Food and Agriculture program.

Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.




Image result for Vietnamese fishing boat Dna 90152 sinking May 2014 after being rammed intentionally by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel

Vietnamese fishing boat Dna 90152 sinking May 2014 after being rammed intentionally by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel


  (March 2016)

 (Also shows examples of how China treats Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen…)

 (Contains links to several related articles)

Image may contain: ocean, sky, outdoor, water and nature
Chinese ship sinks near Argentina: Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010, right, was sunk by the Argentinian coast guard, left, after it was found fishing illegally. Photo credit PNA


   (From July 12, 2016)

 (This    article has links to several  others related to environmental issues in the South China Sea).

 (Has links to many related conservation and environmental articles)


No automatic alt text available.

Above Chinese chart shows China’s “Nine Dash Line.” China says it owns all ocean territory north of the Nine Dash Line. There is no international legal precedent for this claim.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid.

Việt Nam protests Indonesian attack on fishermen — Việt Nam requests competent Indonesian authorities investigate and rerport

November 11, 2016


Viet Nam strongly protests the use of force by Indonesian forces against Vietnamese fishermen and their fishing vessels, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lê Hải Bình said yesterday. — VNA/VNS
He made the statement in reply to a reporter’s query on Việt Nam’s reactions to an October 21 incident in which an Indonesian navy ship chased and shot at two Vietnamese fishing boats, injuring three of 13 fishermen on board. One later died due to serious wounds.HÀ NỘI — Việt Nam strongly protests the use of force by Indonesian forces against Vietnamese fishermen and their fishing vessels, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lê Hải Bình said yesterday.

The fishing boats were operating in the overlapping waters in the exclusive economic zone delineated by Việt Nam and Indonesia.

The Indonesian actions are not commensurate with the strategic partnership between Việt Nam and Indonesia, as well as the principles of humanitarian treatment of fishermen, Bình said.

“Việt Nam requests competent Indonesian agencies to promptly clarify the incident, seriously punish violators, and satisfactorily compensate the Vietnamese fishermen,” the diplomat stated.

On November 1, a Foreign Ministry representative handed over a diplomatic protest note to the Indonesian Embassy’s representative in Hà Nội.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Indonesia is also working closely with Indonesian agencies to obtain more information and offer timely assistance to the injured fishermen, Bình said.

He extended deep sympathies to the family of the bereaved, assuring them that the Vietnamese Embassy is co-ordinating with competent Vietnamese and Indonesian agencies to bring the body home as soon as possible. — VNS

The World Is Running Out of Fish: Nations Battle More and More Over Less and Less

November 5, 2016

By KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

Asia’s seafood addiction is depleting the oceans and stirring diplomatic tensions. The region consumes 70% of the world’s fish, a share poised to rise as the middle class expands. Fishing operators are searching for bigger hauls, while governments are increasingly protective of marine resources. The seas are churning with competition and disputes.

TOKYO — At 3 a.m. one October night, in a dark and smelly Nagasaki port in western Japan, a 300-ton steel fishing boat from the East China Sea was unloading its catch. Not a man among the tired crew was smiling. One fisherman sighed. “The haul is so tiny,” he lamented. The boat contained eight massive tanks but six were empty. And most of the fish in the hold were not mackerel, the hoped-for prize. Instead, the fishermen were unloading smaller and less-pricey fish to market.

The East China Sea — bounded by Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan — used to be a trove for Japanese fishermen, but the situation has dramatically changed in the last decade. The life of Toshiro Nomura, 67, tells the story.

A Japanese fisherman takes a cigarette break after returning to Nagasaki with a dismal catch. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

Nomura was born in a fisherman’s family in the western frontier Goto Islands of Nagasaki, long a base for profitable deep-sea fishing. His father established a fishing company in 1961 and enjoyed a plentiful business from the East China Sea throughout his lifetime. Nomura took over in 2005. In less than a decade, he shut down his operations. “There was no hope for the future,” Nomura said.

Diminishing catches and increasing equipment costs battered his ambition, but Nomura said it was the unstoppable wave of Chinese boats that made him call it quits in 2014. “We have been interrupted by Chinese boats a lot.” Nomura said it was not unusual to see a fleet of 200 to 300 boats roll into his traditional fishing waters. It was so dense that his own boats could barely sail through.

The Chinese operate legally, he admits, and they work in a zone where both countries have fishing rights. Still, Nomura said, the Chinese surge drowns prospects for traditional or smaller companies. “If we leave the East China Sea as it is, all the fish in the area will be China’s.”

Insatiable appetite

The seas in Asia and the Pacific are troubled waters these days for the fishing industry. Nearly a third of the world’s fish stock is being “overfished” — harvested at biologically unsustainable levels — according to assessments by the United Nations. In part, that is because Asians are hungry, and ready to pay, for its regional bounty.

A recent report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that Asians ate 99 million tons of fish in 2013 — about 70% of the 140 million tons that were available for human consumption. Fish meal production — made from smaller fish that are less valuable — is also on the rise for use in feeding livestock and to support aquafarms.

As commercial fishermen have rushed to take advantage of rising demand, governments are trying to grapple with the economic and environmental fallout of intense trawling and fishing. Among the seafood prompting debate are tuna and sea cucumbers, highly valued delicacies in the region.

When a subcommittee meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission was held in Japan in late August, tuna was high on the agenda. Members were adamant about defending their national interest in the tuna trade. The nine-member group failed to agree on how best to ensure sustainability.

Japan, the world’s largest tuna consumer, proposed that if evidence showed that tuna spawn was low for three consecutive years, fishing could be restricted to half the present catch limits. But the delegation from the U.S., where environmental groups demand more strict resource management, called the proposal “too loose.” Taiwan countered that the cuts were “too strict.” One negotiator from Japan’s Fisheries Agency told the Nikkei Asian Review that the talks were so heated that “there was no way to advance the discussion.”

Prices of sea cucumbers, shown here being dried before shipment, have been spiking. © Reuters

The spiny slithery sea cucumber — revered by Chinese cooks as a tonic and now trading near all-time highs — is also stirring international troubles in the South Pacific. In the last year, at least seven Vietnamese boats were seized and destroyed in Australia while fishing for sea cucumber. In August, Micronesia said it seized up to 20 tons of the fish allegedly harvested by Vietnamese fishermen. A jump in market prices in Asia for sea cucumber — the Australian Fisheries Management Authority says prices have increased by 30% each year for the past five years — gives fishermen incentive to violate other countries’ territorial waters.

Feeling the heat

Overzealous fishing is not the only problem. Global warming is apparently making the situation worse. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the harvest from marine fisheries in Southeast Asia is expected to fall by between 10% and 30% by 2050 relative to recent catch levels as water temperatures rise. In some sea areas near Thailand and Indonesia, the harvests are forecast to drop over 40% in the same period.

Still, world fish production is projected to increase and meet the demand — all thanks to aquafarming. The FAO predicts that aquaculture will increase fish production by nearly 40% by 2025.

“Aquaculture could potentially cover the future gap created in our diet due to fish stock loss,” said Yoshitaka Ota, director of the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program and research associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia. However, farmed fish may be an acquired taste, he said. “The aquacultured fish that are increasing in volume, such as catfish or tilapia, are not the species preferred for consumption by all countries. Therefore it won’t fill the gap unless we change our consumption preferences.”

Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world, may already see the future. The Pacific saury is a mainstay of Japanese dinner tables in autumn. This year, small saury, which normally are used for canned food, are being sold to retailers to market as grilled fish. “The situation is worsening year by year,” said Yasuteru Kobayashi, operating officer of the fresh fish department at wholesaler Tohto Suisan.

Part of the demand for fresh fish across Asia is supported by improved shipping and logistics. Just a few years ago, sushi and sashimi were hard to come by in the inland Chinese city of Chengdu, more than 1,000km from the coast. But Ma Haiqin, a 28-year-old worker at a local software company, now often buys tuna sashimi from a foreign-owned supermarket in the Sichuan Province city.

The tuna is shipped in from the coastal city of Dalian, more than 2,000km away, by refrigerated trucks. The supermarket’s supervisor said such logistical improvements have transformed the market for fish.

In Chengdu, tuna sashimi costs about 35 yuan ($5.16) for a package of five slices — nearly double the price for salmon sashimi. But tuna sashimi apparently has become popular among a younger generation of Asian consumers who travel and have money to spend on high-quality food. They are also conscious of the health benefits of fish.

Ma Haiqin now experiments by making sushi at home with tuna, boiled shrimp, salmon and seaweed. She watches videos online to ensure she prepares the fish properly. “I became a fan of sashimi during a trip to Japan,” she said.

The FAO’s report predicts that by 2025, per capita fish consumption will increase by 12% in Asia and Oceania, excluding Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The growth will be especially fast in China, with consumption seen increasing nearly 20%, compared with a global average of 8%. Japan is one of the few countries in the region where, due mainly to a large aging population, fish consumption is expected to fall, at an estimated 2%.

All this means that the waters around Asia are seas of competition. And authorities are increasingly sensitive to those fishing for big profits off their shores.

“We would like to come and visit your boat.” With that polite warning, a Thai navy ship gave chase Oct.19 to a small fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand near Pattaya. Six navy soldiers eventually boarded the vessel to question the captain, asking for the registration documents and the crew roster. They opened the holding tank to see what the fisherman had caught — and then released them without incident.

This surprise check is part of the Thai navy’s latest campaign to crack down on overfishing and the possible use of illegal labor. It is also an attempt by Thailand to limit breaches of its territorial waters — something more Pacific nations are doing as part of stepped-up efforts to fight illegal fishing.

According to a recent report by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, illegal fishing in the Pacific costs the industry up to 338,475 tons of tuna, or the equivalent of $740 million, a year.

A Thai naval vessel, right, approaches a fishing boat for an inspection in the Gulf of Thailand on Oct. 19. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

Australia is among the countries that have seen a significant increase in illegal fishing vessels in their waters. Data from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority shows that 20 illegal foreign fishing boats were apprehended in the 2015 fiscal year ended in June, up from six the previous year.

Show of force

Some authorities in the region have responded aggressively. In September, three Chinese fishermen were killed in a boat fire near South Korea. According to local reports, South Korean maritime police threw flash grenades into the boat after it ignored a warning. The police said the boat was suspected of illegal fishing.

South Korea said in early October that it would use greater force in dealing with Chinese boats fishing illegally in its waters, including shooting at them. It recently summoned China’s ambassador to protest an incident in which a South Korean coast guard vessel was rammed by a Chinese boat that was allegedly fishing illegally. South Korea told the ambassador that the incident was “a challenge to public power.”

On Nov. 1, South Korea’s marine police for the first time fired a machine gun at two Chinese boats engaged in illegal fishing, according to a local report. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded the next day  that China “is strongly dissatisfied with the use of force”. China was asking Korea to exercise restrain and refrain  “from applying extreme measures that could danger the Chinese people.” She added the Chinese authorities are working hard to regulate and discipline operations by the Chinese fishermen.

Illegal fishing, some fear, has the potential to unmoor diplomatic relations. Masanori Miyahara, president of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, said economies depend on the seas and countries need to be aware that competition along the coastlines is churning unease.

“For small countries like those in the South Pacific, illegal fishing by just one foreign boat can cause distrust toward the country,” he said. “One illegal fishing incident between two big countries could trigger high-level diplomatic talks.”

Nikkei staff writers Makoto Nakatogawa and Ami Yamada in Tokyo, Shunsuke Tabeta in Beijing, Yukako Ono in Bangkok and contributing writer Michael Field in Auckland contributed to this report.


Fishing fuels conflict in the South China Sea

CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer

Foreign fishing boats seized due to illegal fishing are blown up near Bitung in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. © Reuters

MANILA As the Indonesian army marched at the presidential palace in Jakarta in August to celebrate the nation’s Independence Day, the navy and coast guard units were smashing holes in fishing boats that had encroached on its territory.

They sank 60 vessels that day, most of them were foreign-flagged. The record-setting action brought to 236 the number of illegal fishing boats destroyed since Indonesian President Joko Widodo came to power in October 2014.

Widodo has called this “shock therapy” to restrict illegal fishing, which officials estimate costs Indonesia up to $20 billion a year. The Indonesian archipelago, Southeast Asia’s biggest, has the world’s second-longest coastline and its largest tuna fishing grounds.

Indonesia used to take a low-key approach to safeguarding its maritime zones and has considered itself a nonparty to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where its neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China have overlapping claims. But China’s increasing assertiveness in the nearly 3.8 million-sq.-kilometer waterway — reflected in the adventurism and relentlessness of its fishermen to go as far as Indonesia — has prompted Widodo to take a tougher approach.

Indonesia is not alone in its battle against seafaring trespassers. In March, about 100 Chinese-registered boats guarded by Chinese coast guard units were detected fishing near the Luconia Shoals, which Malaysia considers part of its territory. The Malaysian government quickly deployed units from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and its navy in the area. In March, Vietnamese coast guard units seized a Chinese fuel ship in Vietnamese waters, and in May, the Philippine Coast Guard arrested 10 Chinese poachers who were found in possession of endangered black corals near the southern Philippine island of Camiguin.

In recent years, tensions in the disputed area have centered around fishermen, rather than military units. Analysts say countries including Vietnam and China have deliberately encouraged their coastal fishermen to operate farther afield in the South China Sea.

China has the world’s biggest fishing fleet, and it is being used “to assert its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea,” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an email.

DOUBLE DUTY In the town of Tanmen on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, fishermen are playing a crucial role in Beijing’s maritime ambitions. A 70-year-old retired fisherman, who introduced himself merely as Li, said his job — like many others — was not only to catch fish. For years, he said, he had two duties when he left shore.

“As Chinese, we have to do one thing without complaint when necessary,” Li said, referring to fishermen working as militia. “When we are told by the state to go to the South China Sea, no matter what, fishermen in Tanmen must put on [militia clothes] and sail.”

When Li was still fishing, he would sail to the South China Sea with his colleagues for 100,000 yuan ($14,749) to 200,000 yuan per mission. Tanmen-based fishing boats are also equipped with advanced navigation systems that cost about 10,000 yuan, thanks to government subsidies.

Highlighting Tanmen’s strategic importance, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the town in April 2013 and gave a pep talk to local fishermen. “Please feel safe to fish,” Xi was reported as saying at the time. He also told maritime militia members to “collect oceanic information and support the construction of islands and reefs,” according to a report by the China Daily.

China has built at least seven artificial islands in the South China Sea and equipped them with runways and navigational support facilities to cement its territorial claims.

Some 300 to 400 fishing vessels are constantly anchored in Tanmen, and more than 1,000 local people make their living by fishing. Some of them, like 59-year-old Guo Hai, have grown increasingly cautious because of the risk of being arrested at sea. “As the South China Sea is dangerous, nobody wants to go there,” Guo said.

Many households in Tanmen proudly display pictures of Xi posing with local people. “We can live in the town and work [at] sea without anxiety — thanks to Mr. Xi,” one fisherman said.

China is the world’s largest fish producer, accounting for more than 17% of global output, according to a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. However, stocks are disappearing. Fisheries resources in the East China Sea and Bohai, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea, are severely depleted, and only the South China Sea is in better condition, Chinese media have reported, citing information from the Ministry of Agriculture, which has blamed overfishing.

DEPLETED STOCKS China’s annual catch has reached 13 million tons in recent years, much higher than the allowed volume of 8 million to 9 million tons, local media have reported, citing the ministry. In the Yangtze River, which accounts for 60% of the country’s total freshwater fish output, the annual catch is about 100,000 tons a year — less than a quarter of what fishermen caught in the 1950s, according to Chinese media.

If overfishing continues, China’s more reliable source may suffer the same fate as the Yellow Sea. Already, fish stocks in the South China Sea have fallen by 70% to 95% since the 1950s, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia.

A Chinese coast guard vessel approaches Filipino fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.© AP

With the government’s backing, Chinese fishermen have been emboldened to fish even beyond the “nine-dash line,” a historical demarcation of Beijing’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea. An international tribunal ruled in July that this claim has no legal or historical basis, but Beijing has refused to accept the ruling.

“Currently, fisheries [are an] important factor that influences China’s policies towards the South China Sea,” Zhang Hongzhou, an expert on regional maritime issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

In the tussle for supremacy in the region, discussions have mostly centered on oil and gas resources. But some analysts say the prospects for oil and gas are overhyped. A U.S. Geological Survey study has found that the South China Sea contains some 12 billion barrels of oil and 160 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. But since most areas with oil and gas resources are within the exclusive economic zones of respective claimant countries, they are not really in dispute.

Fish “are certainly more important in escalating the disputes and causing conflict than is oil and gas,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A crew member of a security ship belonging to Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries on patrol in the South China Sea in August © Getty Images

Beyond depleting fish stocks, as fishermen become integral to their respective states’ maritime strategies, they also represent a security risk.

“An incident involving fishermen is the most likely cause of an incident that could provoke a crisis,” said Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines. “Militia vessels could do a lot of harm to other states’ vessels, and if the other states retaliate to protect themselves, Chinese coast guard and military vessels could then step in to retaliate with overwhelming force, claiming ‘provocation.'”

Poling said Chinese naval, air, coast guard, and paramilitary forces in disputed waters will increase rapidly as its military bases in the Spratly Islands become fully operational.

“That will lead to more frequent run-ins with fishermen and others from neighboring states,” he said. “Given that, it is a matter of when, not if, another crisis will erupt because of a lack of professionalism at sea or a failure to de-escalate rapidly enough.”

Nikkei staff writers Wataru Suzuki in Jakarta and Yu Nakamura in Tanmen, China, contributed to this report.