The South China Sea is among the most beautiful places on Earth. It contains more than 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars and over 6,500 marine species. French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau once called the area “an untouched piece of art.” But now this irreplaceable marine habitat, its sea creatures and the livelihoods of regional fishermen are under threat.
Destruction of coral reefs and the living marine resources that depend on them also may further increase tensions in the South China Sea and the risk of conflict.
Poor stewardship of this natural treasure has taken many forms. Overfishing is part of the problem. In recent years, some species of fish have declined by as much as 80 percent. Fish are also being caught too young. That means they’re smaller, and fishermen must expand their catches to feed those who depend on fish for protein.
Another problem is land reclamation, a way to build artificial islands. “The worst thing anyone can do to a coral reef is to bury it under tons of gravel and sand,” marine biologist John McManus of the University of Miami told the environmental news site SciDevNet. But that’s precisely what’s happening. To build an island, dredgers put sand and gravel on top of coral reefs, a process that destroys the reefs or prevents damaged reefs from regenerating.
Where do people get that sand and gravel to build new islands? It’s taken from nearby lagoons and reef flats, damaging their ecosystems too. The sand and silt billow up, which damages coral tissue and blocks life-giving sunlight from reaching the corals. The sand and gravel put atop artificial islands “can wash back into the sea, forming plumes that can smother marine life and could be laced with heavy metals, oil and other chemicals from the ships and shore facilities being built,” according to University of South Florida professor Frank E. Muller-Karger in his talk with the New York Times.
John McManus adds that already land-reclamation activities have permanently destroyed 1,300 hectares of species-rich reefs.
One environmental tragedy among many is the fate of the giant clam (Tridacna gigas), the largest living bivalve mollusk. It’s an endangered species. Unfortunately for the clam, its shell is prized in China and elsewhere as a luxury item.
To maximize their illegal catch, fishermen deliberately mount propellers on small boats and use them to chop up the living coral reef so they can more easily harvest the clams. In 2014 and 2015, dredging and island-building operations at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs were “immediately preceded by waves of chopper boats cutting their arc patterns across wide areas of the reefs,” reports The Diplomat. The result? Dead clams and severely damaged coral. The coral never has a chance to recover because nations build on the crippled coral to create artificial islands.
The centuries-old coral and the irreplaceable giant clam are only two of the threatened species. Have a look at a few living creatures whose continued existence is at stake.
Creatures great and small
Shrinking fish supply
The price of dredging
A way of life at risk
The “Coral Triangle” between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is home to over 3,000 species of reef fish. An estimated 100 million people in the region depend on these fish for food and income.
The region’s natural resources are closely interconnected. Fish and other marine life in the area between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines depend on coral and fish larvae swept in from the South China Sea and Solomon Islands. When reefs are destroyed and buried, fisheries die and the livelihood of coastal fishing communities, and all the others who depend on them, is imperiled.
Maintaining the fishermen’s way of life grows more difficult in the face of land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the continued destruction of the coral reefs and the species that rely upon them.
People depend upon the natural resources of South China Sea nations, and scientists should work together to understand how overfishing, coral reef destruction and land reclamation affect humans and wildlife. Their cooperation may help maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.