A race to colonize shoals in the South and East China Seas will destroy the very fishing stock Asia is fighting over

A Filipino protester outside the Chinese consulate during a rally on Tuesday in suburban Makati, south of Manila.
A Filipino protester outside the Chinese consulate during a rally on Tuesday in suburban Makati, south of Manila.
Image: AP Photo/Aaron Favila
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China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and Taiwan are among the many countries fighting for fishing rights in the South and East China Seas—but at the rate fish stock is being killed by pollution and over-fishing, there won’t be much left for the victors anyway.

In the East China Sea—home to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands claimed by Japan and China—about 70% of fish stocks were harvested in previous years, but the figure is now over 90%. China began a 10-week fishing moratorium in most parts of the South China Sea last month in an attempt to allow fish stocks to recover, but other countries claiming the same territory have not been willing to set aside their nets.

Fishermen from all countries frequently ignore net hole size regulations, so breeding fish and unwanted species are killed along with everything else. Fish have not had time to grow, pushing down prices in markets and, for many fishermen, causing bankruptcy.

Species have been further threatened by high levels of pollution. A longitudinal study by the Chinese government last year found that three quarters of pollution discharges into China’s estuaries failed to meet regulatory limits, and 48 estuaries are contaminated with heavy industrial and agricultural byproducts, killing fish stock. State media reports on Wednesday said that around 80% of the water off China’s 6,500 kilometer Zhejiang province coast was so polluted with industrial waste that readings were off the scale.

Even if Asian governments agreed to abide by sustainable fishing regulations, there is little that can be done to enforce them. Many fishermen receive no welfare support from their governments, relying instead on their catch to make a living. The regulators just can’t keep up—the Financial Times reports that one Chinese marine officer has just 20 ships and 30 staff to monitor nearly 10,000 licensed fishing boats in one area.