The South China Sea is one of the most important maritime environments in the world. Some $ 5.3 trillion worth of goods are shepherded along its shipping lanes every year, accounting for around a third of maritime traffic worldwide. The Sea is also one of the most contested bodies of water, with seven countries - Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam - laying claim to overlapping coastal waters their fishing rights. In addition to numerous local disagreements it is the overarching claim of China, the regional giant, which encroaches on the maritime boundaries of all the others. Away from the diplomatic wrangling, however, it is the regions 3.7 million people whose livelihood depends on the sea who stand to lose the most from the situation. China's claims in the South China Sea are based on the notion of the "Nine-Dash Line", a tongue that loops down from Taiwain, hugging the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia and ascending along Vietnam's eastern coastline. The furthest point of the line is 500 miles south of China's Hainan island. In addition to fishing rights, there are an estimated 17.7 billion tonnes of crude oil that are thought to lie beneath the sea. China views the Sea as its strategic backyard and claims ancestral fishing rights dating back centuries.
These claims run counter to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which came into force in 1982 and was ratified by China in 1996. It states that a country's maritime rights are based on land, not history, and that each country has the right to a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off its coast. Taking note of the EEZ ruling and brushing over how various outcrops came to be in its territorial orbit, China has been busy building on low-lying reefs in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Some of the constructions appear designed as military outposts with landing strips and other facilities.
Any conflict in this region would immediately draw in two world powers - China and the United States. The United States has always argued for the sea to remain international waters and conducts regular "freedom of navigation" exercises to underline this point. The Philippines, a long-standing ally of the US, won a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 that declared China's de facto annexation of the Scarborough Shoal as illegitimate. China has vowed to ignore the decision outright.
For the 320,000 Filipinos whose livelihoods depend on fishing in Sea, the court's decision also has little bearing since China has become increasingly forceful in its territorial claims. Filipino fishermen report being pushed out of traditional fishing grounds by armed Chinese coast guard ships that patrol disputed waters. The effect of shrinking fishing grounds is compounded by dwindling fish stocks, the result of decades of intensive, industrial scale fishing in countries around the sea which have seen massive population growth and rising demand for fish.
Some scientist, like John McManus from the Rosenstiel School at the University of Miami, are predicting "one of the world's worst fisheries collapses ever". Having to venture ever further, Filipino fishermen have started to encounter Chinese fishing fleets in their traditional fishing grounds whose work is being subsidised by the Chinese government in an effort to assert its territorial claims.
Diminishing catches and smaller fish have led many fishermen to start using dangerous fishing methods such as blast fishing, using homemade bombs, and cyanide fishing, which stuns live fish for the high end seafood export market. China's building activity on some of the fragile reefs in the is also setting off a vicious cycle of marine life destruction that is throwing multiple ecosystems into disarray, causing further loss of fishing opportunities.
The South China Sea, and its most valuable current resource - fish - is facing multiple challenges that have become intertwined with geopolitical tensions that have been growing due to an increasingly assertive China. Filipino fishermen are living and working at the sharp end of this contested sea.