PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—As the Philippine and Chinese governments fight for control over territories in the South China Sea, the sustainability of the waterway’s rich marine resources has become the silent casualty in the dispute, according to a marine expert.
“A Scarborough [Shoal] peace park right now could be the foot in the door for the entire [South China Sea] situation,” John McManus, a leading marine scientist from the University of Miami, told the Inquirer during a recent visit to Puerto Princesa City, capital of Palawan province.
McManus has proposed to China and the Philippines to set aside their territorial dispute over Scarborough Shoal—known to Filipinos as Panatag Shoal—not only to ease the tensions between them but also to preserve what global marine experts claim to be one of the most beautiful and productive coral reefs in the world.
McManus is also behind a proposal to create an international peace park in the Spratly Islands following the conduct of marine studies in the late 1990s on reef and fishery conditions in the disputed region.
A professor of marine biology and fisheries and director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research at Rosenstiel School of the University of Miami, McManus pioneered a scientific research initiative to map out coral reefs in the world, through a project called Reefbase.
McManus, who was in Palawan to promote his peace park proposal through the assistance of the United States, warned that China’s plan to build an artificial island on Panatag Shoal would lead to the irreplaceable loss of an important marine ecosystem.
“Scarborough reef is in a critical stage. If China builds [an island] there, it’s going to be a horrible waste. This is probably the most beautiful reef in the world,” McManus said.
China, which seized the shoal in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard, has prevented Filipino fishermen from venturing into Panatag, a traditional fishing ground for local fishermen, especially those from Zambales and Pangasinan provinces.
The Chinese government has deployed more naval vessels around the shoal and has been driving away Philippine vessels, insisting Panatag is part of its territory despite an international tribunal’s ruling that the shoal is a fishing ground for all.
In its July 12 ruling in an action brought by the Philippines, the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also said that China’s claims to almost all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea has no legal basis and that it has violated the Philippines’ rights to fish and explore for minerals in waters within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine government has raised concern that China may be planning to build another artificial island on Panatag, similar to the seven it has already built in the Spratlys, at least three of which it has topped with airstrips that can handle large military planes.
Besides China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
McManus deplored the failure of rival countries to deal with the deterioration of the marine environment in the South China Sea, which he said had led to the threat of extinction of certain fish species due to overfishing and reef destruction.
He said the marine damage done by China to fisheries, attributed to its artificial island building, was extensive and “irreplaceable.”
“The total area of the damage is about 69 square kilometers in the Spratlys plus Scarborough. Including the damage to the immediate areas outside, we have about 125 sq km of severely damaged reef. People do not realize this but we are in the middle of a massive, massive fisheries collapse in the South China Sea,” he said.
McManus pointed to studies showing that in areas in the Visayas, certain fish species had already gone extinct because of the breakdown of the marine ecosystem.
“This (extinction) is very hard to achieve in the marine environment because species are known to have wide distribution, but we think there is actually extinction going on in central Philippines,” he said.
McManus urged claimant countries to sit down and forge an agreement to reduce commercial fishing in the Spratlys in a coordinated manner.
China is dominant in trawl fishing while the Philippines and Vietnam are largely into reef fish catching. Chinese fishing vessels have also been reported to have harvested giant clams in Philippine waters, according to the marine biologist.
China earlier announced it would reduce its commercial fishing fleet in the South China Sea by 3 percent, which McManus described as a “token” gesture and an admission by China “that there is a problem.”
“The United Nations Convention [on the Law of the Sea] says the [claimant] countries should coordinate, but nothing is happening. Every year, China bans fishing for certain months in the southern part of the South China Sea. That’s not a bad idea if it’s agreed to by the other countries, but it’s not,” he said.
“They do not want to recognize China’s assertion so the response of other countries is to fish more. These unilateral declarations make it worse,” he said.