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Huangyan Island dispute: Who 'poisoned' the South China Sea

Reality Check


Editor's note: Philippine media says destructive fishing practices such as "cyanide fishing" have been rampant for years. The country is blaming China for the deteriorating marine environment, despite a lack of evidence to back these accusations. Who "poisoned" the South China Sea?

In 2021, near a coastal village on the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Philippines, there was an unusual incident of fishermen's death. A captain and three crew members inhaled toxic gas while cleaning the fish storage compartment and they died afterwards. 

Nine departments including the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources launched a joint investigation for the first time. They first suspected that the catch might contain cyanide.

In the Philippines, cyanide fishing is a common practice. It has caused great harm to the health of fishermen and the marine environment. Recently, "cyanide fishing" has appeared frequently in the news in the Philippines, but the finger is pointing at China. So, who "poisoned" the South China Sea?

The Philippines is located in the Coral Triangle. There is a beautiful underwater world where thousands of fish species swim around. But at the same time, large-scale destructive fishing operations are rampant here.

In the early 1960s, with the increasing demand for ornamental fish in Western countries such as the United States, Britain and Germany, archipelago countries rich in fishery resources such as the Philippines have gained broad business opportunities. They began to continuously supply coral reef fish to European and American markets.

Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, Indonesian marine expert said that of the 40 countries that export tropical fish, Indonesia and the Philippines supply at least 85 percent of ocean fish to the world's aquariums. Cyanide was brought toIndonesia by Philippine fishers to collect the high-value fish.

Compared to ordinary fish, the price of colorful reef fish is much higher. Fishermen can double their income right away by selling them. Most Filipino fishermen live in abject poverty. In order to make money faster, the convenient cyanide fishing method has become popular among some fishermen. These fishermen sprayed cyanide at the target fish, and after being affected, the fish will become disoriented and slow in reaction, and eventually will be easily captured.

Meanwhile, the effects of cyanide on corals are also deadly. And an ocean without coral is no different from a graveyard for sea creatures.

In fact, since the 1930s, Filipino fishermen began to practice muroami fishing and blast fishing. These practices have also been performed on fish bastion corals, which have caused irreversible damage.

Faced with the prevalence of destructive fishing in the Philippines, Steve Robinson, an American marine life expert, once said: "The country is committing suicide. The political people are ignorant to that fact, and the business people don't care because they plan to be rich when that happens..."

To alleviate the marine crisis, the Philippine government once introduced a series of laws and regulations to prohibit those destructive fishing practices. However, according to the relevant sources, law enforcement in the Philippines is lax, and illegal fishing practices continue to this day.

Now the Philippines seems to have found a scapegoat to justify its actions.

"This kind of activity of China is not just an attack on one country's sovereignty,  but actually a crime against humanity," Philippine Coast Guard Spokesperson Jay Tarriela said.

And yet on February 18, Tarriela told the media that there is no strong evidence to back these accusations.

Despite the Philippines' clear statement of no relevant evidence, it has been planning to file lawsuits against China over marine pollution since 2023. There are different opinions on this issue in the Philippines.

Harry Roque, former presidential spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte, expressed his view: "In the end, it may not be good for the Philippine-Chinese relations. I will, in fact, ask the Philippine government to reconsider this position, and to explore diplomacy. The way forward is for the Philippines and China and all the claimant countries to cooperate, to promote its biodiversity."

"We urge the relevant party of the Philippines to stop creating a political drama from fiction. If the Philippines truly cares about the ecological environment of the South China Sea, it should tow away the illegally "grounded" warship at Ren'ai Jiao as soon as possible, stop it from discharging polluted water into the ocean and not let the rusting warship bring irrevocable harm to the ocean," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.

Nowadays, public opinion is swirling around the South China Sea, but the world under the sea cries in silence. When the world's attention is deliberately drawn to political disputes, who really cares about the fishery and marine ecology in the South China Sea?

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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