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Giving before getting: Fishing in the South China Sea

First Voice


Editor's note: As one of the world's most productive fishing regions, the South China Sea deserves all the protection it needs for its marine resources. Here's what China has done. Take a look.

Every year for the last 26 years, this happens. Thousands of ships storming out of ports on the same day, heading for open water after months of hiatus. When they return, they'll be packed with great harvests, granted by the replenished sea.

The South China Sea is one of the most productive fishing regions in the world. Half of the world's fishing vessels operate here. The South China Sea fisheries generate $100 billion annually. They account for about 12 percent of global fish catches and directly support the livelihood of 3.7 million people. Nearly 300 million people depend on the protein they supply.

And just like any resource, it's subjected to overuse. According to China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, fishing in the region surged over the past half century. Indonesia's fishing grew 73 times. Vietnam's, 62 times. The Chinese mainland's, 40 times.

To protect this treasure from running dry, in 1999, China introduced a fishing ban in parts of its sovereign waters in the South China Sea. For about four months from late spring into summer, Chinese vessels return to ports. Safety inspections are carried out. And fish in the ocean have a chance to breed.

There's a country that has been particularly unhappy about it recently: The Philippines.

Now, the Philippines isn't known for its sophistications in fishery. Most Filipino fishermen live in abject poverty. In order to make money faster, the convenient cyanide fishing method has become popular among some fishermen. The effects of cyanide on corals are also deadly. And an ocean without coral is no different from a graveyard for sea creatures.

And they are not known for strong law enforcement. 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.

Fishing ban is commonly used by many governments to protect marine resources. India, the UK and the U.S. all do it to various degrees. China's ban in the South China Sea has been enforced every year since it was introduced, every year. 

And the Philippines should get used to the idea that China is well within its rights to enforce law. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country's jurisdictional waters extend beyond internal waters and territorial seas to include contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. Article 73 of UNCLOS states clearly that the coast state can "take such measures, including boarding, inspecting, arrest and judicial proceedings, as may be necessary to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations adopted by in conformity with this Convention." And according to Article 22 of the Coast Guard Law, the Coast Guard is authorized to "take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereignty rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea."

But perhaps what's more important is that instead of criticizing China for its actions, the Philippines should consider thanking China for its conservation efforts. China's efforts to protect oceanic resources have already made substantial impact on the environment and biodiversity. Liu Wei, the director of Division of Fishery Resources Protection of the Guangdong Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said in an interview that "according to the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute, the quality and quantity of the catches in waters off Guangdong increased by 23 percent and 200 percent respectively compared with that before the fishing ban."

Over the years, the proportion of the sea areas meeting Grade I and II of seawater quality standard continues to increase. Areas with water inferior to Grade IV of seawater quality standard have dropped to less than 8 percent. China is one of the few countries in the world where mangrove forest coverage is on the rise. According to the report by the Ministry of Natural Resources, China has established at least 32 nature reserves for the plant to provide natural habitats for marine species and for coastline protection. It has planted about 7,000 hectares of mangrove forests between 2020 and 2023. It has also established a national monitoring and protection system for coral reefs. Monitors have real time access to the situation on the ground, with information like heat changes, boat intrusions, typhoon threats, ocean pollutions at the tip of their fingers.

Like the fishing ban, sustainability is built on restraints. It's a balance: We can't give up on development and, in this particular case, feeding ourselves. But we also need to put a cap on how much we should do and preserve what we can. Making that balance, exercising restraint requires a lot of strength – strength to self-limit, the strength to protect us from outside influences, and the strength to guard our gains.

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

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