The growing might of China and the country's aggressive pursuit of regional resources is deepening a slow moving crisis in waters some 5000 kilometres north of Australia.
While the South China Sea has been reshaped by the rising superpower with the natural environment dredged to expand islands for use as military outposts, the environmental status of oceans to China's east is hardly faring better with researchers continuing to warn of ecological demise due to overfishing.
For years, environmentalists and policy makers have been warning that China's super trawlers were stripping oceans bare. But global authorities such as the World Trade Organisation have been unsuccessful in striking multilateral agreements to address the issue.
Overfishing, combined with the worsening impacts of climate change, mean Asia’s fisheries are at risk of collapse in the coming decades, according to research released this month.
Overfishing in the seas off China
Under a severe climate change trajectory, which indicates a 2C warming by 2050, the South China Sea is likely to experience significant declines in key commercial fish and invertebrate species, analysis by University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries indicates.
"Under certain climate change scenarios, seafood species that are mainstays of the Hong Kong seafood market, such as groupers and threadfin breams, could be reduced to a fraction of their present population by the end of the century – if not driven completely to extinction,” Professor Rashid Sumaila said.
"This is especially the case in the tropical waters of the South China Sea, where many fish species are already facing the limits of their heat tolerance," he added.
Waters in the East China Sea are also facing a barrage of fishing pressure.
While Taiwan Strait has garnered global attention as a potential flashpoint for military conflict, the green lights of squid-fishing boats pose a more imminent threat as they light up the night sky, depleting fish stocks and disrupting the internal clocks and reproductive mechanisms of fish, The Diplomat reported last month.
Glad to see discussions about the barrage of Chinese squid fishing boats in the Taiwan Strait, notably near the #MatsuIslands. Many thanks to @yingyuchen9 & @lilkuo for first-hand reporting on the issue and @Ian_M_Easton for comments. See WaPo: https://t.co/DjlIm3F231 1/ pic.twitter.com/Luubyhe20i
— Wen Lii 李問 (@wen1949) October 16, 2021
According to the UBC research, titled Sink or Swim: The future of fisheries in the East and South China Seas, under a business-as-usual scenario that doesn't see fishing slow down, the South China Sea will suffer a 90 per cent drop in key commercial species by weight. Eastern waters will fare better but see an estimated 20 per cent decline.
However if fishing is halved and in the unlikely event global warming is contained to average temperature rises of 1C by mid century, stocks in the East China Sea should rise, the report says.
Chinese fishing crews venturing further from home
A recent investigation by the Associated Press highlighted how decades of overfishing have pushed China's overseas fleet, the world’s largest, ever farther from home.
The Chinese fleet is able to fish for sometimes years at a time because they can offload their catch at sea into a network of giant refrigerated vessels, or reefers, capable of hauling more than 15,000 cubic meters of fish — enough to fill six Olympic-sized pools —to port.
In some cases, the boats are not conforming to international obligations and have been accused of engaging in illegal fishing of endangered species.
Of the ships observed up close, on board Sea Shepard vessels, more than half either sailed with their mandatory safety transponders turned off, broadcast multiple electronic IDs or transmitted information that didn’t match its listed name or location — discrepancies that are often associated with illegal fishing.
Illegal and unregulated fishing was labelled a worsening "global scourge" in June by think tank the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Carried out by malicious actors in the shadows of the world’s oceans, it can devastate ecosystems, degrade food stocks, and undermine fragile fishing economies," it said.
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