GT investigates: Who is real 'killer' of South China Sea ecosystem?
Published: May 20, 2024 12:14 PM Updated: May 22, 2024 11:43 PM

Editor's Note:

The Philippines' increasingly confrontational and provocative actions against China in the South China Sea disputes have once again strained and worsened relations between the two countries. The Philippines challenged China recently to open Huangyan Dao to international scrutiny after it accused Beijing of destroying the shoal's marine environment, and mulls to file a case against China. But who is real "killer" of South China Sea ecosystem, and why? How do the people of the Philippines view their government's reliance on the US to stir up troubles in South China Sea? What will the Philippines' unilateral and dangerous moves bring to other ASEAN member states? 

With these questions, Global Times reporters went to the Philippines to speak with former senior officials, think tanks, and ordinary citizens and investigated more.

This is the third installment in the series.

The endangered humphead wrasse on sale at Manila fish market Photo: Hu Yuwei/GT

An endangered humphead wrasse is on sale at a fish market in Manila. Photo: Hu Yuwei/GT

In recent years, in order to promote the scientific conservation and long-term sustainable use of global fishery resources, China has not only strictly implemented fishing moratorium policies in its territorial waters, but has also initiated voluntary fishing moratorium activities in certain international waters, setting a model for global marine ecological preservation through innovative measures. 

However, China's efforts are not always understood.

The Philippines and the US have consistently promoted negative narratives targeting China, leveling accusations of environmental destruction in the South China Sea and hinting at possible court action against China. 

In a recent visit to the Philippines, the Global Times revealed that illegal fishing acts are evident in seafood markets across the Philippines, allowed by those people who smear China of illegally harvesting fish and sea life. 

Despite existing law enforcement governing these illegal, destructive fishing practices, the lack of effective regulations still fuels the lingering of these practices in the Philippines, the Global Times found. 

Fish market in Masinloc Port, a Philippine town close to China's Huangyan Dao, gets crowded from 7am. Photo: Hu Yuwei/GT

Fish market in Masinloc Port, a Philippine town close to China's Huangyan Dao, gets crowded on early morning. Photo: Hu Yuwei/GT

Endangered species on sale at Manila fish market

Dampa is one of the oldest and largest wet markets in Manila. Local Filipino vendors touted their fresh live groupers, snappers, and lobsters fishing from the South China Sea to Global Times reporters in simple Putonghua. 

When the Global Times reporters inquired as tourists whether they could buy the endangered humphead wrasse, which has been banned in the Chinese market, the local vendor quietly led them to a secluded corner to show off his "rare goods" - a juvenile giant grouper with green and orange web-like patterns on its head. 

There were no larger giant groupers available currently, only small ones on the market, he noted. 

The humphead wrasse is a rare fish species which lives in and around islands across the South China Sea. It is one of the world's largest reef fish and is globally recognized as a rare species. In China, humphead wrasse is classified as a second-level protected animal. Illegal hunting, killing, purchasing, or selling of humphead wrasse can result in 5-10 years of imprisonment in severe cases.

However, in the Philippines, catching and selling these rare fish species is a quick way for some fishermen to get rich. Local vendors told the Global Times that the humphead wrasses they sell were caught near Palawan Island in the southern Philippines, carries a price of 5,500 pesos per kilogram ($336.48). For fishermen in the area with an average monthly income of only 3,000 pesos, catching and selling this fish is a lucrative business.

Similar under the table selling is also seen in some other rare species in the South China Sea, with the most typical being China's nationally protected species, for instance, the giant clam, or tridacna.

A local source in the Philippines told Global Times that tridacna was available for purchase in an open wet market in the Philippines is still relatively rare as it is prohibited by Philippine law. However, if you find a black-market trader they will fulfill the need in their own way. "This phenomenon is particularly common in some provinces in the southern Philippines, where the government's regulations are weaker, and the illegal industry of poaching precious species is more accepted," the source said.

A report by the Wildlife Justice Commission notes that there has been a sharp rise in illegal harvesting of sea life in the Philippines since 2019. Most of the illegal hauls were shells that are stockpiled at coastal locations in Palawan, in open and apparently public spaces with little or no effort at concealment. Palawan is the only place in the Philippines where scientists have observed T. gigas clams in the wild, which along with Palawan's geographically remote location and access to the South China Sea, could account for it being a major stockpiling location. 

According to the report, the market value of giant clam shells in the Philippines reportedly doubled to around 2,000 pesos per kilogram during the pandemic, providing local fishermen a greater economic incentive to snap up these giant clam shells.

A vendor in the city of Davao, Philippines, sells so-called wild pearls from the South China Sea to Global Times reporters. Photo: Fan Wei/GT

A vendor in the city of Davao, the Philippines, sells so-called wild pearls from the South China Sea to visitors. Photo: Fan Wei/GT

Unfounded accusation in US institution's report

Although hunting rare marine species is common in the Philippines, the Philippine government, which should be responsible for a crackdown, was not criticized by Western countries that are usually keen on promoting environmental issues. On the contrary, several Western research institutions were even collaborating with Philippines to interfere in the political situation in the South China Sea, publishing ecological reports for the Philippine government to use as a tool to attack China.

In 2023, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) issued a report titled "Environmental Threats to the South China Sea." In the report, the Center claims that increased fishing, dredging, and land fill, along with giant clam harvesting in recent decades have taken a devastating toll on thousands of species found nowhere else on earth. Targeting China, the report argues that satellite imagery shows that at least 21,000 acres of reef in the South China Sea has been destroyed or damaged owing to Chinese activities. It further cites a report released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command (WESCOM), which blames Chinese maritime militia for the so-called severe environmental damage at Houteng Jiao and Xianbin Jiao in South China Sea.

According to scholars who are actually engaged in ecological surveys and research in the South China Sea, many conclusions in this report are based on little to know scientific data. 

Chen Xiao, a professor at the College of Marine Sciences at South China Agricultural University, who has participated in China's ecological field surveys in the South China Sea on several occasions, told the Global Times that China has conducted ecological environment field surveys in the South China Sea for years, and he almost goes to dive and observe the coral reefs in the South China Sea islands and reefs every year. "The current widespread coral reef degradation issue is very complex, more are due to natural factors such as coral bleaching and outbreaks of coral predators caused by a rise in global temperature," he said.

Scholars from China and many other countries around the world have been paying close attention to the adverse effects of global climate change on coral populations worldwide. 

"In recent years, the South China Sea region has experienced unusually high temperatures, leading to serious coral bleaching on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea. It has become a consensus in the academic community that climate change will result in large-scale coral mortality," Chen said. 

However, ironically, climate change is directly related to carbon emissions, which the US has consistently refused to adhere to global agreements to control. Washington, however, has placed significant effort into actively hyping and politicizing ecological issues in the South China Sea. 

Researchers involved in relevant studies told the Global Times that the causes of ecological damage in the South China Sea are complex, and that ecological conditions fluctuate. In the actual scientific research process, it is often difficult to pinpoint the specific reasons for ecological damage, and it requires countries in the South China Sea region to work together to address this issue. However, whether it is US or Filipino media reporting, they all bypass the scientific exploration process and directly blame China.

The Global Times found that although reports from some independent academic institutions in the West have repeatedly pointed out that the Philippines' lacking sound domestic fisheries protection laws and limited enforcement methods has led to severe damage to the South China Sea's ecology due to its extensive fishing activities, the report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States, based on ideology and national interests, only targets China and Vietnam for criticism, while completely ignoring problems in the Philippines.

A vendor sells fish products partly getting from the South China Sea. Photo: Hu Yuwei/GT

A small stall selling fish products in part sourced from the South China Sea. Photo: Hu Yuwei/GT

Profiting from industrial chaos

In the Philippines, products labeled as "South Sea, wild, pure natural" are often the most favored by tourists from a number of countries. 

Taking pearls as an example, Global Times reporters noticed that at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila that the counters specializing in selling pearl products were the most crowded places for tourists, with "wild pearls from the South Sea" prominently displayed. The price of wild pearls is almost five times that of cultured pearls of the same type. 

Stable demand and high prices have led more and more Filipinos to turn to sea hunting. But at the same time, poor harvesting practices, limited technology, loose regulatory system, and destructive fishing methods means profits come at a heavy ecological cost.

The Philippines is a major fishing country, with much of its fisheries production consumed locally. Heavy fishing pressure has led to the decline of both municipal and coastal fisheries and destructive fishing methods such as poison, cyanide and blast fishing often occur in its coastal waters.

Sodium cyanide is a toxic chemical compound that many fisherman in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia (the largest exporters of tropical fish) crush and dissolve in squirt bottles to spray on the fish - and the reef and all the other marine life in the vicinity. Stunned, the target fish can then easily be scooped up. Philippines' live reef-fish exports are one of the biggest sources for the international market. 

It does, however, kill the coral reefs where the fish breed and live. Still, impoverished rural fishermen, who are paid by the number of fish they catch, say they cannot afford to think of the future.

In addition, a fishing method that has long been outlawed in China - blast fishing - is also quite common in the Philippines. A Chinese fisherman who has been engaged in fishing operations in the South China Sea for many years told the Global Times that there is indeed a phenomenon of fish bombing among Filipino fishermen, though it's not that common. 

A Chinese fisherman told the Global Times that he has encountered the cases in the Liyue and Houteng Jiao reefs located around Nansha Islands of China. 

"Many Filipino fishermen use octopus boats to fish at sea. These fishing boats are not suitable for long-distance voyages, so blast fishing is more widely seen in nearby areas," the Chinese fisherman said. 

Zhou Zhuocheng, a senior aquatic biologist from China Fisheries Association, believes that the lack of laws and regulations for the protection of wildlife indirectly allows for destructive fishing practices in the Philippines. The delay in the enactment of the relevant law in wildlife protection has been prolonged, leaving many fishermen ignorant. This will inevitably lead to a situation where Chinese fishermen are doing their upmost to protect rare species in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, but fishermen from countries such as the Philippines in the South China Sea are still hunting recklessly, which will only lead to the continued deterioration of the South China Sea ecosystem, he said. 

"Previously, the Philippines enjoyed productive cooperation with China in the protection of rare species in the entire South China Sea, and both sides made good progress in the conservation of the South China Sea ecosystem. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been continued under the current Philippine government. As a researcher in the aquaculture industry, I feel deep regret over this development," Zhou said.