Without much notice, cooperation in the exchange of data and information, consensus on the value of marine protected areas, and joint research expeditions in the South China Sea have been increasing. For example, last year, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to resume their Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMRE-SCS), which dates back to 1994 but was suspended in 2007.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment has recognized the enormous challenges to sustainability in coastal and shared ocean regions, warning that a multilateral scientific approach to the ecosystem is needed. Marine scientists across the region are preoccupied with identifying shared solutions to this environmental challenge.
While economic and strategic security issues may have been the driving force behind ASEAN regional integration, environmental concerns will have to play the same role, going forward. The unfolding ecological catastrophe is making worse the diminishment of once rich fish stocks, already severely compromised by overfishing. Reclamations are destroying reefs, while agricultural and industrial effluent poisons coastal waters. All this is creating food-security challenges and undermining the already hardscrabble livelihoods of fishermen and others.
Six years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, in the US has warned that as many as one million species could be extinct in the coming decades. Fishing has remained at an unsustainable 10-12 million tons a year for decades – a number that could double when illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) practices are taken into account.
The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) confirms that the South China Sea accounts for as much as one-tenth of global fish catches. By 2030, China will account for 38 percent of global fish consumption. Overfishing and widespread destruction of coral reefs urgently require the intervention of science policy to safeguard stewardship of this vital area.
China has been at the forefront of the unsustainable exploitation of fish stocks, With over 2,000 blue-water commercial trawlers and over 100,000 fishing vessels, including a 3,000-ton fish-processing ship, evidence is compelling that Chinese fishing operations are not only responsible for the destruction of coral reefs but also contributing to the fisheries collapse.
It is no wonder that mainland Chinese marine scientists are stepping up protection of designated marine zones. China has more than 270 marine protected areas (MPAs), comprising about 5 percent of its national waters according to Li Yunzhou, postdoctoral associate at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in the US. While China does have a history of establishing MPAs, policy experts and scientists recognize that the South China Sea waters are at a tipping point. For Beijing to achieve their objectives of mitigating habitat degradation and reining in the overexploitation of resources, all stakeholders must be engaged. It will take urgent international cooperative action for China to improve the effectiveness of its maritime management and governance.
Designating protected reserves is an emerging tool for marine conservation and management. Sometimes called “ecological reserves” or “no-take areas”, they are vital to the conservation of marine resources. Vietnam has been fast-tracking its own model marine protected area program. Cu Lao Cham is located about 20 kilometers off Vietnam’s central coast. The Cham Islands MPA was established in December 2005. Professor Chu Manh Trinh, a Da Nang University biology professor, is largely responsible for mapping out the objectives for protecting the natural resources of the Cham archipelago. Hanoi is rolling out more MPAs as part of their national drive to strengthen food security. The protected zones play an important role in the development of the marine economy, improving livelihoods in coastal fishing communities. At the same time, they are useful in asserting national sovereignty claims.