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Addressing Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing in the South China Sea

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

By Senia Febrica

The Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing in the South China Sea (SCS) has brought devastating impacts to environmental, economic, and security of the coastal states of the South China Sea. The SCS is a semi-enclosed sea bordered by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. The SCS is the central ecosystem of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Pacific West Central Region, the most extensive shallow marine water and the area with the highest level of marine biodiversity in the world (Zou 2015: 97; Talaue McManus 2000 as cited in Khemarkorn 2006:18). The SCS is the home of high value marine life such as tuna, 700 species of coral and 3,000 species of coral reef fish (Gomez 2016 as cited in Quintos 2016:1). The abundant and diverse biodiversity has provided immense benefits to coastal states (Jiang and Xue 2015: 318). As the world’s richest fishing ground the SCS supports the livelihoods of over four million fishermen in the surrounding coastal states, contributes 12 per cent of the global fishing catch, and generates US$ 21.8 billion annually (Astuti 2017: 3). Fisheries are critical not only for socio-economic development but also for the food security of states surrounding the SCS. For coastal states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines fisheries contribute 65 per cent of the animal protein consumed in these states (UNEP 2005 as cited in Jiang and Xue 2015: 318). The pelagic fish, especially the smaller species, are the main source of inexpensive protein for people from lower-income groups in these states (FAO 2014).

The marine biodiversity in the SCS, however, is deteriorating at a staggering rate. In the past three decades fish stocks have declined by a third and in the past ten years coral reef has decreased by 16 per cent (Astuti 2017: 3). It is estimated that 162 square kilometres of coral reef has been destroyed and over two thirds of this damage was caused by illegal fishing practices (Cyranoski 2016: 334). The SCS has extensive mangroves and sea grass which serves as a critical habitat for fish and other marine species (Chircop 2010: 336). However, in the past 70 years mangroves in the SCS have decreased by 70 per cent and 20-50 per cent of sea grass has been damaged (Chircop 2010: 336).

Although the SCS is facing environmental crisis, the ongoing maritime disputes in the SCS between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have shifted concerns over declining fishery resources and marine degradation into the background (Quintos 2016). Creating cooperation for fishery management is crucial not only to slow environmental degradation but also to address the over-exploitation and illegal harvesting of fishery resources that put enormous pressure on already stretched resources. In recent years illegal fishing has contributed to escalating security tensions between countries surrounding the SCS. Coastal states adoption of shooting on sight and scuttling of vessels conducting IUU fishing has led to the militarisation of fishing in the SCS. In May 2013 for example the Philippines fisheries bureau and coast guard officers, encountered and opened fire on four Taiwanese fishing boats in an area that the Philippines claims as part of its exclusive economic zone, killing one Taiwanese fisherman (Wahley, 10 May 2013). From January to April 2016 three military confrontations occurred between China and Indonesia maritime security authorities over illegal fishing vessels in proximity to Natuna Islands. Between December 2019 until January 2020 a series of confrontations took place between Indonesian maritime authorities and the Chinese coast guard over IUU fishing activities conducted by Chinese fishing vessels in the North Natuna Sea.

Despite the urgent environmental need and common economic interests among the coastal states to mitigate fishery conflict and fish stocks collapse in the SCS there is no regional cooperation mechanism between the coastal states even though it might be in their collective best interest. This circumstance raises a number of questions including: Why does regional marine conservation and fishery management cooperation remain absent despite the increasingly challenging environmental and resource management situation for states bordering the SCS and fishery businesses which use the sea? What are the viable actions that can be taken to develop fishery cooperation mechanisms in the SCS?

There are three concrete actions that I consider would assist countries in the South China Sea region in addressing IUU fishing. The first action is conducting research to provide evidence-based outcomes that can help facilitate the exploration of possible concrete steps for policy and technical collaboration between government agencies, civil society, fishery businesses, fishermen associations, donor community and international development institutions that shared mutual interests to mitigate environmental risks and improve sustainable fisheries in the SCS. The cooperation for conservation and protection of marine resources in the SCS is governed by a number of international treaties such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and the 1995 Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. All states that border the SCS are parties to these treaties. However, the coastal states level of compliance with them remains low (Jiang and Xue 2015: 320). Under these circumstances, there is a critical demand for regional cooperation. There are a number of regional marine environmental institutions that have influence over biodiversity conservation and protection in the SCS. However, for these institutions fishery conservation and management in the SCS is not a priority. For instance, the Partnership in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, which is jointly sponsored by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank, focuses primarily on marine pollution prevention and management. A regional institution called the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia that managed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) focuses mainly on three areas including marine and land based pollution, coastal and marine habitat conservation, and response to coastal disasters (Zou 2015: 102-104). Another relevant regional cooperation institution that regulates the code of conduct in the SCS is the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS that are signed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states and China. Parties to the 2002 Declaration agreed to cooperate in various fields ranging from conducting marine scientific research to combating piracy. Fishery conservation and management, however, were not mentioned among cooperation activities that the ten ASEAN member states and China agreed to explore or carry out. By providing a better understanding of the dynamics of fisheries cooperation, or the lack of it, the outcomes of this proposed research would be critically important in helping to inform national and regional policies on possible paths for regional cooperation on fishery management and establish, promote and develop links with governments, private sector, civil society and regional institutions for sustainable fisheries in the SCS. By doing so this proposed research contributes in addressing the main shortfall in regional environmental cooperation in the SCS.

The second action that I believe will contribute in addressing the problems of IUU fishing in the SCS is the organisation of a joint or coordinated patrol in the South China Sea. This patrol would be most useful to increase monitoring and improve a quick response to deal with perpetrators of IUU fishing. Joint or coordinated patrol is one area of cooperation that could be developed by coastal states of the SCS. Indonesia has proposed joint patrols in the South China Sea to create a functional cooperation measure to deal with common concerns such as IUU fishing, sea robbery attacks against ships and pollution prevention measures, including special operations to deal with oil spills in the waterway (Liputan 6, 4 June 2015).

This idea was first articulated by the former Indonesian Ministry of Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore in May 2015 (Bloomberg, 30 May 2015). On the sidelines of this regional meeting of defence ministers and military chiefs, Ryacudu met his Chinese counterpart to convey the joint peace patrols idea that would involve all of the South China Sea claimants. Ryacudu also shared his idea with the ASEAN countries’ defence ministers at the meeting (Detik, 4 June 2015). Malaysian Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, stated that the joint patrol plan with China was “not impossible,” since “China has more to lose if the region is unstable” (Bloomberg, 30 May 2015). Ryacudu highlighted that “Indonesia is committed to support all parties that prioritise peace and stability in the South China Sea. If the sea lanes are secure, then the trade route will also be safe, which could improve economic development and regional prosperity” (Antara, 16 October 2015). During Ryacudu’s visit to Beijing from October 13th – 18th , 2015 the proposal was further discussed with China’s Minister of Defence Chang Wanquan. This idea was welcomed by the Chinese Defence Minister, as he stated his support for “Indonesia to hold a dialogue between China and the ASEAN countries as well as to conduct joint patrols to promote peace in the South China Sea” (Antara, 16 October 2015). The two agreed that details of the peace patrol including locations, when it will be carry out, time-span, and the implementation mechanism would be discussed by task forces developed by the two countries (Berita Satu, 21 October 2015). Both the negotiations on the details of the patrol operations and the establishment of the task forces are carried out through the two countries bilateral navy to navy dialogue (Berita Satu, 21 October 2015). Ryacudu, who took part as a member of President Jokowi’s delegation to the U.S. at the end of October 2015, has also used the visit to explain to Washington about Indonesia’s proposal on joint patrols with China and ASEAN countries (Diplomat, 28 October 2015). Despite much discussion, joint patrols in South China Sea have not yet materialised.

The third action that can improve cooperation to address IUU fishing in the SCS is either a development of a new network that include representatives of fishing communities and businesses – processor, traders, and retailers – or the inclusion of these non-state fishery stakeholders into the existing track-two diplomacy networks for the peaceful engagement in the South China Sea that have been led by Indonesia and Vietnam. I believe there is an urgent need to include fishermen and representatives of fishery businesses to help resolve the problems posed by IUU fishing. The practice of IUU fishing has greatly disadvantaged and discriminates against fishermen and fishery businesses that act in line with sustainable fishery measures. Yet, these stakeholders views are rarely heard in the various forums held on the SCS region. Representatives of fishing communities and businesses in the SCS can also have useful and practical insights that can improve cooperation on enforcement and conservation measures in the SCS region.


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