China’s Doggedness in the South China Sea Influences Its Marine Life

An international tribunal has officially ruled against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea — leading ecologists to fear for the worst.

The decision, made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, upheld allegations by the Philippine’s that China unlawfully restricted its access to a particular reef, the Scarborough Shoal, which both countries have claimed.

Though the judgment is legally binding, China is prepared to cast it aside. A statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministry reads, “China neither accepts nor recognizes” the decision from The Hague.

The South China Sea is infamous for acting as the source of territorial disputes between China and its island neighbors, but it now proves a source of concern for conservation groups looking to protect fish life and coral reef ecosystems in the area. They believe that tension between China and the Philippines could lead to overfishing, increased competition for fish, and permanent damage to the fish, sharks, and sea turtles native to the Sea.

The Scarborough Shoal, the center point of the latest case against China, is particularly fragile, having seen fish densities and catch rates plummet in the past decades. John McManus’s, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami, research suggests that the reef “is at the center of a crucial region from which many coastal fishing stocks are replenished.”

The decimation of marine life is not the only concern in the South China Sea — the destruction of coral reefs has also escalated, and is left vulnerable by China’s unwillingness to accept the Court’s verdict. McManus estimates that 162 square kilometers of reef has been destroyed by the Chinese in the past few decades, much of which a result of island building, for which reefs are used as a foundation.

The Chinese government has addressed McManus’s claims, saying island building is carried out “based on thorough studies and scientific proof,” and that “the impact on the ecological system of coral reefs is limited.” But scientists agree — the decimation of marine life in the South China Sea must stop.

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