Fishing and the Future of the West Philippine Sea

Thinking Beyond Politics
Victor C. Manhit

Posted on April 19, 2017

From afar, the West Philippine Sea looks like a blue surface extending into the horizon. Peer closer, however, and an observer cannot miss the fishing boats and trawlers plying their trade in one of the world’s most fertile, vibrant, and vulnerable marine areas.

In a Special Study for the Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi), marine geneticist Dr. Ma. Carmen Lagman explains that the Philippines should capitalize on the environmental and economic value of the West Philippine Sea, as well as the Philippines’ victory at The Hague-based Arbitral Tribunal, to explore a different and creative approach to reducing tensions. Through one approach, the countries’ concern for the sustainability of fish stocks could motivate the creation of transboundary fisheries management areas between the conflicting countries.

For this approach to work, the Philippines, ASEAN, and our international partners must work together to safeguard the commons that the whole of region benefits from. The prospects for ASEAN cooperation within the context of The Hague ruling will also be discussed at a forum hosted by ADRi for this purpose on April 25.

The South China Sea covers over 3.5 million square kilometers between rapidly growing countries like China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Each of these states holds a conflicting claim to the resources in the sea. With fish stocks in the Yellow Sea, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the East China Sea all the way to the Gulf of Thailand either fully fished or depleted, fishing fleets from across the region have turned toward the bountiful depths of the West Philippine Sea.

The change in their behavior threatens not just the balance of power in the region but also the ecological balance that sustains the biodiversity of its waters.

To date, discussion over the economic value of the West Philippine Sea has mainly revolved around the exploitation of potential oil and gas deposits. However, many of our fishermen are on the front line of these disputes, and their livelihoods are deep in the heart of the Philippines’ interests in the sea.

Traditional fishing, legally defined, relies on small boats and labor-intensive methods to pull a relatively small catch out of the water. According to the ruling, Filipino fishermen are traditional fishers who have been directly hurt by the Chinese incursion into Philippine waters. Large Chinese coast guard vessels have closed off sites like Panatag or Scarborough Shoal to Filipino boats, effectively bringing in destructive, large-scale trawling at the expense of sustainable, small-scale fishing.

The expulsion of small-scale Filipino fishermen from their traditional grounds matters because reported fisheries landings from the West Philippine Sea were estimated at about 10 million tons in 2015 -- about 12% of the total global catch. In fact, Dr. Lagman believes this might even understate the true figure -- adding illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing might push the total landing figure to 16.6 million tons. The report indicates that 11 to 17 million tons of catch are traded annually -- reaching nearly $22 billion worth of economic activity each year and supporting over 3 million jobs throughout the region.

International law has offered a strong verdict on the Philippine claims in the West Philippine Sea, even going so far as to explicitly support the private rights of traditional Filipino fishermen to ply their trade.

Unfortunately, “the facts on the water” offer a dramatically different and far more troubling situation for Filipino fishermen.

The West Philippine Sea is split into roughly four broad areas where marine life cycles merge together, where the fish, the crustaceans, and everything else beneath the waves live out their own circle of life and contribute to the feedback loop of biodiversity. The area near the Spratly Islands, including our own Kalayaan Island Group, is known as a spawning ground for tuna, among other species. If gigantic trawlers and dredgers continue to destroy these reefs, this cycle will falter and die -- fish will lose their habitats and their food sources and the region’s fishermen will spend longer days fighting over less until stocks run out for good.

Dr. Lagman offers an approach that could head off this nightmare. China, the Philippines, and other claimants currently seek strict delineations of sovereign control over various parts of the sea, with China even looking to claim the entire sea within its controversial nine-dash line. Lagman believes that these contending parties might more readily agree to protect the sustainability of the marine life within the waters than to share control. Placing the ecosystem as a top priority could instead lead to the creation of transboundary fisheries management areas where claimants could cooperate to permit the environment to recuperate, share scientific information, and ward off poachers.

Ideally, we would see four broad transboundary fisheries areas that would correspond to the four major zones of marine life in the South China Sea. Each one would come under an agreed-upon management system among the states that are directly affected. Such agreements could then become stepping stones for a cross-regional understanding in the future.

By taking this path, the claimant states can simultaneously safeguard the national interests, protecting the region’s shared resources, and build trust instead of enmity. Ultimately, a durable solution to the disputes must be built on a shared, regional understanding of our long-term interests and a willingness to explore constructive areas of cooperation.

Victor Andres C. Manhit is the President, Stratbase ADR Institute.