By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE SOUTH China Sea is a major fish source for the Philippines that is crucial to its food security, political analysts said on Sunday, belying President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s claim that it couldn’t quarrel with China over fish.

China’s unregulated fishing activities in the disputed waterway, where the Southeast Asian nation gets 27% of its fish catch, threatens the  livelihood of thousands of Filipino fishermen, said Sheena A. Valenzuela, a national security analyst at the Ateneo De Manila University Policy Center in Manila.

“It’s resources are crucial to the food security of Filipinos, contributing to coastal livelihoods and export trade,” she said in an e-mail. China’s illegal fishing activities “could also lead to the loss in livelihood of about 627,000 Filipino fishermen.”

Mr. Duterte last week said he would only send warships to the South China Sea once China starts drilling for oil in the area, noting that there was not enough fish there to quarrel about.

“There is no treaty between the Philippines and China allowing the latter to fish within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, which means China’s actions are illegal,” Ms. Valenzuela said.

The South China Sea has been the source of about 12% of global fishery production and hosts more than half of the world’s fishing vessels, Jay L. Batongbacal, who heads the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said in a Viber message.

Fishery production from the waterway was worth $617.18 million in 2016, he said. “But we don’t know how much more this figure could be had we been tracking how many foreign fishing vessels have been operating in the South China Sea and how much they are taking.”

Mr. Batongbacal said there is no exact fish data, which are based on fish landing at fish ports, not on fishing grounds where the fish came from. “The governance system does not account for where fishermen go.”

Annual yield from the Spratly Islands alone could reach as high as 90.8 thousand metric tons (MT) a year, which is equivalent to 5% of the country’s total marine capture, he added.

“The fish stocks there are indeed vital to the country’s economic sustenance and development,” the analyst said.

The South China Sea is biologically linked to the Sulu Sea and the rest of the Coral Triangle that extends all the way to Papua New Guinea, Mr. Batongbacal said. “It plays a role in the regeneration of fish stocks in those other waters.”

“The possible income loss from conceding our marine resources there is about P4-5.9 billion per year,” Jerwin G. Baure of scientist group AGHAM said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Mr. Baure, a fishery technologist, said the South China Sea supports as many as 3.7 million fishermen from six countries.

“Around 55% of the fishing vessels in the world operate in the South China Sea, on which 86% are small-scale fishing vessels,” he said.

Mr. Baure said Chinese island-building activities had destroyed at least 16,000 hectares of reefs as of 2017. Reef damage could reach P33.1 billion yearly.

More than 1,500 fishermen in Masinloc, Zambales in northern Philippines have deserted the Scarborough Shoal, which for decades served as their traditional fishing ground, he said, citing fisherfolk group Pamalakaya.

About 240 Chinese vessels that China claims are ordinary fishing vessels have spread out to a wider area in the South China Sea, a Philippine border patrol task force earlier said.

It said about 15 vessels either manned by Chinese militia, the People’s Liberation Army Navy or Chinese Coast Guard had been spotted at the Scarborough Shoal.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a research fellow at the Ateneo De Manila University Policy Center, said the fishing ground in the South China Sea was one of the reasons why the Chinese and Vietnamese have invested in their fishing fleets.

“This begs the question, why have we not done the same?” he asked.

“Whatever claim the President has regarding this subject can easily be confirmed or disproved by the Bureau of Fisheries,” he said. “So the fact that the latter has not been vocal in this issue tells me a different story.”

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources did not immediately reply to a mobile phone message seeking comments.

Presidential spokesperson  Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. last week said Mr. Duterte would tolerate China’s fishing activities in the South China Sea. He added that Filipinos could also fish freely in the contested waters.

“The fact that the Chinese militia has been exploiting our marine ecosystem without the proper legal framework in place is tragic on many levels,” Mr. Yusingco said.

Herman Joseph S. Kraft, head of the UP Political Science Department, said the President’s unwillingness to counter China’s military presence in the disputed waterway makes his administration culpable.

“He is dangerously abrogating to himself powers that compromise constitutional provisions,” he said of Mr. Duterte.

Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University, urged the government to build structures in its territories to deter Chinese incursions.

“I don’t know if the administration has the courage to do that, honestly, but we have to move fast to build structures,” he said in a Zoom App Meetings interview.

“Duterte is not actively upholding the arbitration case victory, as seen by his administration’s responses to Chinese vessel intrusion until recently,” Mr. Baure said.

“It seems that he has chosen to remain diplomatic to retain the Philippines’ bargaining position for China-funded infrastructure projects and other state donations, like vaccines,” he added.