ï»ïżœ ‘Irreparable harm’: China intrusion’s impact on West Philippine Sea ecosystem | INQUIRER.net

‘Irreparable harm’: China intrusion’s impact on West Philippine Sea ecosystem

By: March 10, 2024
‘Irreparable harm’: China intrusion’s impact on West Philippine Sea ecosystem


MANILA, Philippines—South China Sea (SCS) has one of the richest marine biodiversity in the world but competing territorial claims and neglect are increasingly threatening its ecosystem.

This was the warning by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in a report released late last year and presented at a briefing by the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea last Feb. 21.

According to the report “Deep Blue Scars: Environmental Threats to the South China Sea,” increased fishing, dredging, land fill and giant clam harvesting have taken a “devastating toll,” especially on the biodiversity’s main foundation—coral reefs.

READ: PH urged to invoke High Seas Treaty for West PH Sea protection

The report stressed that coral reefs, which are often described as “rainforests of the sea,” are “considered one of the most vital ecosystems in the SCS, providing food and shelter to thousands of species in their surrounding environment.”

So “to ensure the security and longevity of the plants, animals, and people that call the SCS home, this critical environment must be understood through an ecological, rather than merely geopolitical lens,” said the report.

Vibrant but threatened

damaged corals in the waters off Sandy Cay in Pagasa Island in the West Philippine Sea

damaged corals in the waters off Sandy Cay in Pagasa Island in the West Philippine Sea

damaged corals in the waters off Sandy Cay in Pagasa Island in the West Philippine Sea

Photo show damaged corals in the waters off Sandy Cay in Pagasa Island in the West Philippine Sea. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

According to data from the website marinespecies.org and the article “Extraordinary Diversity of Reef Corals in the South China Sea” by Huang D. et al, out of the world’s 1,683 reef-forming coral species, 571 are found in SCS.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out that coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion and provide livelihood, especially for local communities.

According to the report “Geographical Distribution of Coral Reefs and their Responses to Environmental Factors in the SCS,” by Li T. et al, most coral reefs in SCS comprise atolls that are characterized by a diverse range of coral species that are highly significant.

READ: Justice sought as China intrusion brings ‘immeasurable’ destruction to PH coral reefs

The International Society of Reef Studies said in a report that SCS is of “critical ecological importance,” stressing that it is leaning on the western border of the Coral Triangle, a region with highly rich marine biodiversity.

It explained that with close to 600 identified species of corals “the SCS rivals the Coral Triangle in coral diversity” and is “home to a plethora of marine life of both ecological and commercial value, including many species on the IUCN Red List.”

However, over the years, coral reefs have become one of the “most threatened ecosystems in the region, with coral cover declining 16 percent per decade,” said the report written by Harrison Pretat, Tabitha Mallory, Hao Chen, Gregory Poling, and Monica Sato, a Filipino.

RELATED STORY: Corals harvested in WPS may be for reclamation — DND

Indeed, “while regional powers work to strengthen their claims to disputed waters and territories [in the SCS], the marine environment in which they maneuver has been declining to critical levels,” it said.

Great damage

SCS, which has an area of 3.5 million square kilometers, has become a “theater of current strategic power competition,” especially with competing claims by these countries:

According to the article by Li T. et al, SCS is home to over 100 reef features, covering a vast area of an estimated 37,200 square kilometers, contributing five percent of the world’s total coral reef cover.

The reef features are distributed across nine main areas, including the Paracels and Spratlys, where the Philippines has claims on certain islands and rocks above water at high tide.

Reef features in China sea

coral reefs destroyed

GRAPHIC: Ed Lustan

According to data from CSIS, out of all the reef features in SCS, 27 are already occupied by China, 18 by Vietnam, 9 by the Philippines, 5 by Malaysia and 1 by Taiwan. This doesn’t mean, however, that the unoccupied features are spared from damage.

READ: From intrusion to destruction

According to the CSIS report, to build outposts in SCS, “claimants have engaged in dredging and land fill across the region, destroy[ing] vast areas of the SCS’ coral reef ecosystems over the last 10 years.”

The harvesting of giant clams for their remarkable shells, have taken a devastating, even greater, toll on the coral reefs of SCS, too.

According to CSIS data compiled by INQUIRER.net, over 4,000 hectares in China-occupied reef features had already been destroyed, while about 3,600 hectares in those that are still unoccupied had been damaged as well.

Some 600 hectares in Vietnam-occupied reef features had been destroyed, too.

Who’s to blame?

The CSIS report pointed out that China, over the years, has “destroyed or severely damaged” about 8,500 hectares of coral reefs in SCS through “island expansion and giant clam harvesting.”

China, however, has constantly dismissed allegations of damaging the marine environment in SCS, with the latest denial describing the CSIS report as “fabricated.” China said it has always been for the protection of SCS biodiversity.

“This think tank (CSIS) concocted the false report by citing a few satellite images and stirring up falsified allegations from years ago,” said the Chinese embassy.

“Such a report is neither factual nor verifiable. Why are they so obsessed with harping on the same string?” it added.

CSIS, by using satellite imagery on the occupied and non-occupied reef features in SCS, found that some 1,800 hectares of coral reefs have been destroyed by China’s artificial island-building through dredging and land fill.

RELATED STORY: AFP sounds alarm: Rozul Reef’s corals completely wiped out

As described in the report, dredging is the removal of silt and sediments from the seabed, and is often done in SCS to create “channels, harbors, or to gather material for land fill, which is the creation of new artificial islands.”

CSIS said “dredging can entirely remove essential reef substructures, causing irreparable and long-term changes to the overall structure and health of the reef: From late 2013 to 2017, China used dredging to build out its artificial islands.”

Likewise, about 6,500 hectares were said to have been damaged because of the harvesting of giant clams by the Chinese, with CSIS saying that over 20 percent of maritime features in SCS have suffered damage from giant clam harvesting.

PH reefs destroyed

According to CSIS data, West Philippine Sea (WPS) reefs have not been spared. According to previous reports by AMTI, China has at least 30 outposts in SCS, occupying six reefs inside WPS, which is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone:

AMTI said that China also “controls” Scarborough, or Panatag Shoal, which lies off the coast of Zambales province. It was seized by China in 2012 through constant CCG presence in the area.

READ: PH can sue China for WPS reef, coral damage — Carpio

All of these have suffered damage from China’s dredging and land fill activities, as well as the harvesting of giant clams, which are “vital to the health of reef ecosystems,” especially in the WPS that propagates the coral reef ecosystem in the western section of the Philippines.

According to the CSIS report, about 800 hectares had already been destroyed at Fiery Cross Reef, which was occupied by China on the pretext of building weather radar stations to help Unesco in its global oceanic survey.

Damage is even more extensive at Mischief Reef, which was seized by China in 1995, explaining that the structures it built were for shelters for Chinese fishermen. Close to 1,000 hectares had already been destroyed.

According to the CSIS report, most of the damage was caused by giant clam harvesting: