Territorial disagreements with devastating effects under water

The South China Sea has been the stage for various political and international expansion efforts and territorial disputes between different countries for the last decade. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the US Center of Strategic and international Studies (CSIS) released a report in December 2023 about human activities that “take a devastating toll on thousands of species found nowhere else on earth.” The findings show 25 square kilometer (over 6000 acres) of coral reef have been destroyed by building activities like island building, dredging and landfill. Industrial fishing and bottom trawling has caused further damage to the environment. Fishing stock has been depleted since the 1990 and ever so aggressive measures exacerbate the situation further. The South China Sea is claim to Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, China and the Philippines which all have various land building projects going. Many of those man made islands are used as outposts to manifest territorial claims and are located in sensitive ecological locations. China has reportedly caused the most reef destruction through dredging and landfill and Vietnam is second on that list. The process of cutter suction dredging cuts into the reef and moves sediment to shallow locations. It disturbs the seafloor and further damages the reef by clouds of floating sediment. China completed most its land building between 2013 and 2017 and now has military outposts on the three large reefs Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross.

In the past Vietnam used the slower but less destructive clamshell dredgers but has ramped up construction with the same methods china used in the past. AMTI warned that there is ongoing destruction happening which will have major consequences in the region. Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also developing their islands, but on a smaller scale. There have been efforts to mitigate the environmental impact.

The watchdog AMTI reports another largely unrelated cause of concern in form of giant clam harvesting. The giant clam shells have become a popular replacement for elephant ivory and are used for jewelry and carvings. Fisherman have been using methods using propellers to dig up the reef in search of the giant clams. Many reefs the report notes show widespread scars caused by this method.