China's activities damaging marine environment in South China Sea — study

Chinese activities in the South China Sea have greatly contributed to the damage inflicted on the marine environment in the area, with at least 21,000 acres of reef severely affected.

A study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) discovered that China’s dredging and landfill activities and giant clam harvesting in the South China Sea have left a drastic damage in its marine environment.

Their dredging and landfill activities already damaged 4,500 acres of reef, while the clam harvesting affected 16,000 acres.

Those have made them the top contributor to the damaging of the area, according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative researchers Greg Poling and Monica Sato, who presented the study on Thursday, Feb. 22.

China’s method of dredging—called cutter suction dredging—from 2013 to 2017 was “considered the most detrimental to the environment…because it removes essential reef substructures and also incapacitates the reefs ability to repair itself over time," Sato said.

Although Vietnam's activities also left a negative impact on the marine environment, they were still three times less than what China did.

"And Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan [that also have activities in the area] barely scratched the surface," Sato said.

Meanwhile, Chinese fishermen’s way of harvesting clams—through the use of specially-made brass propellers—is also detrimental because they are digging both live and dead clams or fossilized clams into the reef.

"[China's] process will actually take decades, if not centuries, to recover," Sato said, adding that "while there was a crackdown by Chinese authorities in 2017, satellite image shows that this process continued up until 2019."

According to Sato, the study was only conducted on the 180 occupied and unoccupied features in the South China Sea that could be seen via satellite.

That meant that the number of acres that were already damaged could go higher if those in the deeper parts were studied, Poling said.

"The bare minimum reef damage in the South China Sea is 21,000 acres by China and just 1,500 by Vietnam. So China has destroyed at least 15 times as much reef as Vietnam," Poling said.

"But we know that this is an undercount. On the part of China, we know it's an undercount of China's damage because it only captures the scarring on the shallowest parts of the reef," he added.

Poling believed that the Chinese activities in the South China Sea were supported by the Chinese government, considering that Beijing subsidizing Chinese fishers to fish in the waters that only started when disputes in the South China Sea arose.

"This is a choice made by Beijing to subsidize fishing in areas where no Chinese fishing boat would operate if the state didn't pay them," he said.

"And the simplest evidence for that is the fact that from the end of World War II until the late 1980s, there is no record of Chinese fishing at either Bajo de Masinloc or anywhere in the Kalayaan Islands," he added.

He said China has a choice to source its fish from other areas considering the vast ocean that surrounds it. But it has preferred to overfish in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, he defended Vietnam's overfishing in the South China Sea because the area is the only source of fish for Vietnamese fishers. Besides, its government is already doing something to address the concern, he added.

Poling urged countries, especially the claimant states of the South China Sea, to form a coalition urging Beijing to stop its damaging activities in the waters.

He found it necessary as the South China Sea "is the most productive fishing ground on Earth," with 12 percent of the global fish catch being sourced there.

"Invite China to join [in marine scientific research in the area]. China will probably say no, but then that further damages China's credibility because why wouldn't China want to save coral reefs," he said.