Southeast Asian Territorial Disputes Are Literally Killing Off Coral Reefs

This week Bloomberg’s Adam Minter wrote a great article on the plight of the South China Seas coral reefs and their large scale destruction in the name of territorial Claims by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
I have written about this previously (here and here), and I am happy that a professional journalist – for a widely-read news publisher no less – has devoted some time and effort to bringing media coverage to this issue.
Below are some new and interesting insights from extracts of the article ( BloombergView “Victims Under The South China Sea” 26/11/2014).

[…] in the South China Sea, where nations seeking to enforce their territorial claims have not always spent much time worrying about the environmentally and economically valuable reefs under the waves. How valuable? A 2011 report to the UN General Assembly on coral reefs noted that seafaring Asian nations count between 100,000 and “more than” 1 million coral reef fishers among them.

One might think that governments, pressed by those fishermen, would be striving to preserve fragile reef systems. But just the opposite has happened. According to a 2013 study by Australian and Chinese scientists, the South China Sea’s atolls and archipelagos have seen their coral cover decline to 20 percent from averages of 60 percent or more just 10 to 15 years ago.

The large-scale reclamation of reefs for military purposes is just the start of the damage. What happens after can oftentimes be much worse. “If 1,000 soldiers are stationed at any one time in a place, they typically cut down vegetation and cause runoff, generate sewage,” says Terry Hughes, a marine biologist and director of the Queensland-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Draining into the sea, runoff is deadly for coral: In coastal China, where cities also tend to discharge effluent into the ocean, 80 percent of all coral has died off. In 1980, the amount of coral cover near a large Taiwanese military outpost in the disputed Spratly Islands was 60 to 70 percent. By 2007 it had declined to 17 percent, according to the 2013 study, which Hughes led.

That sort of damage is likely to grow more common: In October, Taiwan’s top intelligence official revealed that China has seven ongoing South China Sea construction projects. When complete, they’ll join at least 20 additional reclamations owned by four other South China Sea claimants.

Even worse than the direct damage from construction projects is the political deadlock caused by various territorial disputes. The biggest threat to coral is the large-scale use of cyanide and explosives by the region’s fishermen. As Hughes’s 2013 study pointed out, at just one atoll, the number of fishing boats using cyanide and dynamite to kill fish increased nearly eight-fold between 1996 and 2001. By 2001, “virtually everything harvestable (e.g., fish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms) had been stripped from the atoll.”

Rogue fishermen are the immediate culprits, but a lack of governance and oversight allows them to continue their depredations. While that’s no secret to any of the six South China Sea claimants, they’re unlikely to agree on where or how to protect coral if they can’t agree on boundaries first. Instead individual countries have tried to impose fishing limits unilaterally, which no one else follows. “When it comes time for governance, everyone puts their hand up and that means no one,” says Hughes.

Nonetheless, Hughes remains optimistic, if only because corals can regenerate when protected and given time. (Decades are needed.) He suggests that in the absence of a broader agreement on regulating the South China Sea, scientists from the region might begin the discussion on how to protect reefs. Translating any recommendations into action won’t be easy. But it’s probably the best option for ensuring that soldiers and tourists won’t be the only living creatures left to enjoy the seas.

(Featured image shows structures built on top of Johnson Reef)

Dramatic Images of Shenzhen Red Tide

The Shanghaiist (Nov 26, 2014) reports that on Monday (24/11/2014), guests at the Dameisha Sheraton Resort in Shenzhen were witness to a red tide, as the sea water at the nearby beach turned a deep pink color, stretching for hundreds of meters. Dameisha is located in Mirs Bay just a few kilometres to the northeast of Hong Kong
According to the Shenzhen Marine Environment and Resources Monitoring Center, the red tide in this instance resulted from a non-toxic, algal bloom. However, despite center’s insistence that the bizarrely coloured water is harmless, a restriction on swimming and direct contact with the water has been advised.
This is not the first, and probably not the last, case of strangely colored water appearing in China.

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The red tide cause was identified as the non-toxic plankton species Karenia brevis (according to this article). Aerial photographs printed by the daily mail show the extent of the bloom. Only two problems: 1) Karenia brevis is native to the Gulf of Mexico, 2) it is toxic. In fact HK AFCD does not even list this species in its red tide database, which would be odd since it has been monitoring red tides in Hong Kong waters for over 20 years…
So once again a tabloid (the UK’s Daily Mail) has not done its research properly.

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Satellite Image Shows Reef Destruction in the South China Sea

A report from US information company IHS has confirmed earlier reports that China has been dredging to create an island about 3,000 metres long and 200-300 metres wide on Fiery Cross Reef in the contested Spratly Islands. The reef, called Yongshu in Chinese, was previously underwater.

In the space of three months China has turned the reef into an island by dredging soil and sand from the seabed and dumping it on top. The island, shown in a satellite image obtained by IHS, will be large enough to accommodate China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands when completed.

“The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope,” the report said.

A harbour is also under construction to the east of the reef, which appears to have the capacity for tankers and naval warships.

The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei. All but Brunei have asserted their own claims by building structures on reefs and shoals.

State-run Global Times said the reclamation projects had been undertaken to improve living conditions for soldiers stationed in the South China Sea, quoting an anonymous commander. The commander said land reclamation was necessary because soldiers had been forced to patrol in sea water as their stations occupied most of the available space on reefs and were too confined.

Boo-hoo, the station is too cramped, so let’s destroy a coral reef by smothering it with sediment. Clearly no one mentioned the environmental damage and loss of fisheries to the military. All this while countries like Australia are trying to save reefs…its sad day for planet Earth again.

Sea Turtle Poachers Convicted

A court in the Philippines has found nine Chinese fishermen guilty of poaching and catching an endangered species in the South China Sea.

As reported in an earlier post, police found more than 500 sea turtles on their boat when the fishermen were intercepted at sea in May.

They were stopped at a shoal near the Spratlys, a chain of islands which both China and the Philippines claim.

The fishermens’ arrests has strained relations between both countries. China has demanded their release.

Philippines authorities had caught 11 fishermen on the boat, but later released two of them as they were found to be minors.

The remaining nine were each fined $100,000 (HKD 780,000) for poaching and USD 8,800 (HKD 68,650) for taking protected wildlife by a court in Palawan province on Monday.

If the fishermen cannot pay the fine, they will have to serve a jail sentence and can only be freed in May 2015.

Original Source: BBC News

Sai Kung Sharks Story a Bit Fishy

As reported by Coconuts Hong Kong (November 12, 2014) in blurb headlined “Pair of meter-long sharks spotted in Sai Kung” , HK resident Adri Blumberg spotted what seemed to be a shark in Sheung Sze Wan, Sai Kung on the morning of the 12th November:
“two sharks (or shark-like creatures) have been seen in shallow waters near a beach over the last few days. The sharks, thought to be of the same species, are reported to be about a meter long with blue dorsal fins and black and white stripes.”

Enthusiastic as all tabloids are for a attention-grabbing headline, but also trying to appear as socially responsible, Coconuts goes on to say: “It’s actually a great sign that sharks are back in Hong Kong waters. If there are sharks, there are fish. And if there are fish, it means our seas are doing okay!
Scientists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year, and Hong Kong is the world’s biggest trade hub for shark’s fin. If anyone should be scared – it’s the sharks!”

Here is the thing: it’s not sharks, it’s most likely mackerel…
How can this be?
Have a close (zoom in) look at Adri Blumberg’s pictures.

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Image: Adri Blumberg (Facebook)

Notice the shiny bluish color on the caudal (tail fin). Sharks have sandpaper like skin made up of tiny denticles (horns) that don’t normally shine, let alone iridescent blue. Bony fish with scales however have shiny skin often as in the case of coral reef fish in bright colors.

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Image: Adri Blumberg (Facebook)

The other thing is the strongly curved dorsal fin that shows hints of Rays and the sickle-shaped upper lobe of the caudal fin. Both are not seen in sharks or only rarely at least.

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Image: Adri Blumberg (Facebook)

And lastly there a close look shows dark stripes faintly recognisable on the back in front of the dorsal fin. Faint dark stripes point towards a tiger shark, but tigers are very bulky fish and have chunky straight dorsal and caudal fins.

The pictures look a lot like a fish from the Scombridae family that includes mackerel, though. One species recorded from HK is Narrowed-barred Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson), which commonly grows to 1.2m. I will not claim authority as an ichthyologist (fish biologist) but i am quite sure this is not a shark and very likely a mackerel or close relative.

What’s that? You don’t believe mackerel can be big enough to confuse with sharks? Check out this angling sites photos of the Chinese seerfish (Scomberomorus sinensis), a species of mackerel known from China, Japan and Korea.

Here are a few bad (but rights-free) Spanish Mackerel pics cropped to comparable proportions. What do you think?

 

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Tuna firm’s bungled IPO exposes China’s flouting of global fishing rules

Taken from the Guardian newspaper on the 27th of October 2014:
(Note: Tuna also occurs in HK waters, mostly on seasonal migration)

Reporting on international fishing can often feel like investigating organized crime. Everyone knows how things are run, but the truth is obscured by shell companies, back-door dealings, and plausible deniability.

This is why it’s remarkable that a recent, bungled initial public stock offering from a major Chinese tuna firm accidentally revealed something close to the truth about China’s fishing industry.

The failed IPO is the work of China Tuna Industry Group, which from 2011 to 2013 was the largest Chinese supplier of premium tuna to Japan’s hungry sushi market. Over 70% of its $62m in annual sales are made to a single company, Toyo Reizo, a subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp. Hoping to raise over $100m to expand this profitable operation, China Tuna filed draft documents for the IPO in June.

China Tuna’s target fish stocks, Bigeye and Yellowfin tuna, are both in decline. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists Yellowfin tuna as “near threatened,” two steps into a seven-point scale that ends with extinction. Bigeye tuna, meanwhile, are already seriously overfished, as the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency declared this summer.

But for the IPO to succeed, the company had to convince potential shareholders that chasing after dwindling resources would be a profitable venture. So China Tuna leapfrogged over more recent data to cite a 2011 fisheries assessment that rated Bigeye tuna at a “healthy level of abundance” and “not overfished”.

Despite this claim’s shady appearance, it’s hard to know whether China Tuna’s overly rosy assessment of Bigeye tuna stocks was deliberate. The IPO filing is a draft, so fact-checking is by definition ongoing.

But the company did declare in the draft IPO that it intended to circumvent international conservation limits on tuna – by simply ignoring them. In a series of circular arguments, the document stated that China, which presides over the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet, would not crack down on companies engaged in illegal fishing because it never had in the past; that the catch limits set by the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations apply only to China the country, not to actual Chinese fishing boats; and that even if the catch limits did apply, the regional fisheries organizations would not enforce them because “there is no sanction for non-compliance with Bigeye catch limits.”

I wanted to contact China Tuna for comment on these statements. The IPO revealed that China Tuna is a transnational corporation under the communist Chinese flag, operating Japanese and Chinese vessels and registered in the Cayman Islands. Its primary shareholders are Li Li, a 24-year-old woman with a passport from St Kitts, and her dad, Li Zhenyu.

As I tried to track down Li Li’s tuna giant, I discovered that like many big fishing companies, China Tuna is hard to reach. Seeking a phone number for the firm’s operations office in Hong Kong, I found that not only is China Tuna’s office number unlisted – the company doesn’t even have an office.

So I tracked the address in the IPO filing back to a firm named Asialink. At first Asialink denied any connection with China Tuna. When confronted with the fact that its address had been listed in a recent publicly filed document as China Tuna’s operations headquarters, Asialink acknowledged a connection, but refused to provide any comment or additional contact information.

Then I called China Tuna’s biggest subsidiary, Dalian Ocean Fishing. The woman who answered the phone at first claimed no knowledge of China Tuna. After a little more conversation, she acknowledged that China Tuna was Dalian’s parent corporation, but refused to comment further or put me in touch with company directors.

I have yet to speak with anyone who admits to working directly for China Tuna. But the firm’s combination of bravado and impenetrable corporate structure offer clues as to why the health of the oceans is in freefall. China has told the world that from 2000 to 2011 it caught 368,000 tons of fish annually in international waters. But as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2012, the European Commission estimates the catch at closer to 4.6m tons or 12 times greater.

So China Tuna is obviously not the only Chinese company implementing the “overfish-wildly-and-rely-on-not-getting-caught” business plan, just the first to boast about it to potential shareholders.

Greenpeace filed a complaint in September with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, stating that China Tuna was deliberately misleading investors about the health of tuna populations. Campaigner Elsa Lee was amazed not at China Tuna’s Machiavellian business plan, but at its candor. “Having a company write it down, and in some sense shamelessly admitting that they’re running around the rules,” she says, “is really quite amazing.”

In a letter of response to Greenpeace, China’s Bureau of Fisheries stated that while Dalian Ocean Fishing, China Tuna’s subsidiary, currently holds licenses for 17 vessels to operate in the Pacific, “the Ministry does not give approval to companies registered overseas to conduct offshore fishing activities, and thus the company’s actions are already in violation of relevant laws and regulations.” So it would appear that China issued fishing licenses to China Tuna without realizing it’s a Cayman Islands company run by a foreign national.

The statement was also at odds with the company’s draft IPO, which described a series of tax breaks and state grants from the Chinese government for its deep sea fishing activity.

The Bureau of Fisheries also told Greenpeace that it was shocked – shocked! – to find overfishing in its establishment. Overfishing occurs because “China is a developing country, its offshore fishing companies are still weak, levels of management are still uneven, and the management system still needs to be steadily improved,” states the agency.

Perhaps. Once wholly state-owned, 70% of the Chinese fishing industry has been privatized in recent years. It’s certainly plausible that the government is struggling to retool.

But China expert Tabitha Mallory believes there is more to it. She says fishing lies at the intersection of Chinese ambitions for military expansion and food security. While many political analysts refer to the 21st century as “the China century”, Mallory told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2012, China also calls it “the ocean century.” She points to a 2010 Chinese task force report stating that “marine biological resources are seen as the largest store of protein, therefore owning and mastering the ocean means owning and mastering the future”.

In this view, fishing boats become Trojan horses for expanding international power. China does, in fact, send military boats along with fishing boats into disputed fishing waters, sparking clashes with neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea. China would not be the first nation to tie fishing to military or political expansion, however. For example, my own reporting on tuna in the Western and Central Pacific suggests the United States bases its aid to allies in the region at least in part on tuna treaties.

Although the Hong Kong Stock Exchange recently ordered China Tuna to suspend its draft IPO, the document offers unusual if indirect acknowledgement of China’s habitual overfishing all over the globe. Glenn Hurry, head of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, says China will “hopefully face hard questions at the next regional fisheries meeting.” But don’t hold your breath. The fisheries management organizations that regulate the world’s ocean commons, like the rest of the fishing world, are completely nontransparent. No media allowed.

Shannon Service frequently reports on oceans and fishing, and is currently working on a documentary, The Ghost Fleet, about slavery in the international fishing industry.

This story was produced by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit news organization focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

Original source link here