The South China Sea: Why it matters

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.

Men riding small boats on sea (© National Geographic Creative/Mauricio Handler)
Bajau fishermen fish for yellowfin tuna in Sabah, Malaysia. (© National Geographic Creative/Mauricio Handler)

The challenges

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.

Three people walking with large bucket of fish (© AP Images)
Filipinos carry a container with fish from a boat in the coastal town of Infanta, Pangasinan province, northwestern Philippines. (© AP Images)

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.

Satellite image of circular reef (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe)
Several nations claim Subi Reef, in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands. By June 2015, China had dredged and reclaimed over 6 million square meters of land in the area. Land-reclamation efforts like this one damage coral and other marine life, and the livelihood of surrounding fishing communities. (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe)

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.

Infographic showing area of artificial islands that have been built in South China Sea, by country (U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission)
John McManus adds that already land-reclamation activities have permanently destroyed 1,300 hectares of species-rich reefs.

Diver holding giant clam (© AP Images)
A diver holds a giant clam, locally known as “Taklobo.” (© AP Images)

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.

Coral reefs

Peixe nadando perto de recife de corais (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)
The coral reefs of Southeast Asia are among the world’s most productive. They are “a treasure trove of biological resources,” says Jay Batongbacal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)

Creatures great and small

Sea star lying on coral (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)
Starfish, like this one on a coral bed, as far south as Malaysia depend upon the coastal ecosystem that extends southward from the South China Sea to thrive. (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)

Shrinking fish supply

School of blackfin barracuda swimming (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)
These blackfin barracuda are among the species that rely upon the South China Sea. (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)

The price of dredging

Brightly colored shrimp crawling on sea urchin (© National Geographic/Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures)
As dredging and dumping drown coral reef habitats in sand, shrimp and sea urchin species like these also die. (© National Geographic/Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures)

Ecosystem loss

Face of parrotfish (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)
As long as coral reef ecosystems continue to disappear, fish like the Singapore parrotfish face an increasingly uncertain future. (© National Geographic Creative/Tim Laman)

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.

Two men carrying fish in bucket, with boat behind them (© AP Images)
Filipino fishermen bring their fish to shore in Infanta, Pangasinan province, northwestern Philippines. (© AP Images)

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.

Boats floating on water against darkening sky (© AP Images)
Fishing boats are moored for the night as the sun sets in the northwestern Philippines. (© AP Images)

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.