Fight Over Fish Fans a New Stage of Conflict in South China Sea

A new contest has begun in the South China Sea, where fishing vessels and warships increasingly rely on electronics, satellites and wartime strategies to stake territorial claims and harvest one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Even before China fired missiles into the area last week, the global pandemic and the growing involvement of the U.S. had been raising the level of aggression.

Rising tensions have made a bad situation worse for the 3.7 million people officially employed in fishing the waters and millions more who make their living from a sea that separates 10 countries and territories. As competition over dwindling fish stocks intensifies, it also risks sparking a conflict that further inflames relations between China and the rest of the world.

Asia’s Rich Large Marine Ecosystems

Total catch in million tons from 1950–2014

Source: The University of British Columbia

China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, based on a seven-decade-old map marking its territory with nine dashes that loop down about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) south of its southern province of Hainan. It is backing that claim with a growing armada of navy and coast guard vessels, stoking a wave of national pride in the country. As Cai, a 30-year-old Hainan fish trader put it bluntly, “the entire South China Sea is ours.”

Rising threats and falling catches from overfishing have caused Taiwanese fisherman Chen Fu-shen and many others to quit.

“Few Taiwanese fishermen fish there nowadays. There are more and more military ships—from the Philippines, Vietnam, China. It's dangerous,” said Chen, 60, who made his first trip as a 14-year-old from his native Liuqiu Island, southwest of Taiwan. In those days, he said, a 20-day trip could bring in 20 tons of fish. Now, technology has improved but catches have fallen. “Each boat used to drop hundreds of hooks per day,” he said. “Now, with more advanced equipment, we can drop thousands. The fish stock is diminishing fast.”

Others are determined to stay and fight for a way of life that has been the sole living for their communities for generations.

Bustling Waters

Fishing activity by vessel origin in April and May 2020 using Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals

Note: Only shows fishing activity for China, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Sources: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Spire Maritime, Flanders Marine Institute (

“We go out to the sea today to fish, to protect the sea’s resources and to protect our country’s sovereignty—the sea and the islands—so that our children can fish there,” said Nguyen Quoc Chinh, head of a fishing union in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, who lives on the tiny island of Ly Son.

When fishing the disputed waters around the Spratly and Paracel Islands, the islanders have adopted the convoy tactics used by merchant ships in World War II, together with modern electronics to detect shoals. “Fishing in groups allows us to stay longer,” said Quoc Chinh. “Once we find the shoals we inform the group. We fish together and leave together.”

Maritime Minefield

Sites of reported clashes between fishermen and Chinese government vessels, 2010–2019

Sources: Natural Earth, China Power Project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Fishing boats in the South China Sea are routinely attacked, harassed or robbed at gunpoint, making one of the world’s most dangerous professions even more risky. The crew of a boat from the Vietnamese island of Ly Son said they were rammed by a Chinese police vessel on June 10 while fishing off the Paracels. They said the guards beat them and forced them to fingerprint a statement before seizing $20,000 of fish and equipment.

“The pace of run-ins between civilians and law enforcement has been increasing steadily for several years,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington. “What has really changed post-Covid has been China’s hyper-nationalism and sensitivity to criticism. Beijing has been showing no interest in deescalating situations.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for information about the nation’s activities in the South China Sea.

Indonesian authorities sink an impounded Vietnamese fishing boat near Datuk island in West Kalimantan in May 2019.
Indonesian authorities sink an impounded Vietnamese fishing boat near Datuk island in West Kalimantan in May 2019.
Photographer: Louis Anderson/AFP via Getty Images

Reports of confrontations have riled the Trump administration, which accuses China of violating international law by using its naval and civilian fleets to assert its claims. China has created thousands of acres of land to support buildings and airfields on the reefs and rocks in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes to support its patrols. In July, the U.S. government signed an agreement with Vietnam to strengthen its fisheries management and enforcement capacity.

The increased U.S. involvement has ratcheted up the tension. During military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army on Aug. 26, China fired four medium-range missiles into an area between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, according to a U.S. defense official. A day earlier, Beijing protested a flyover by a U.S. spy plane.

The added layer of nationalism has helped governments enlist fishing boats in small flotillas together with military or Coast Guard vessels to drive off foreign ships. In December, China sent dozens of fishing boats escorted by coast guard vessels to the waters near Natuna Islands. Indonesia sent warships and 120 fishing vessels in response.

“It’s not just about catching the fish, it’s also about defending their countries’ claims, and that is an added layer of pressure and burden and makes for a fearful situation for a lot of them,” said Tabitha Mallory, founder and the CEO of the Seattle-based China Ocean Institute.


Ten worst-performing countries for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing scores

Source: The Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Index 2019 by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

A major part of the tactics used today is stealth. Boats from all nations often switch off their automatic identification system or are too old or small to have one, increasing the danger of collision. But satellites that can detect ships’ lights or the metal of their hulls show that much bigger fleets of ships are fishing in the disputed areas than official statistics indicate.

“We are seeing an uptick in” illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, said Nguyen The Phuong, a research associate at the Center for International Studies in Ho Chi Min City. With nearly 100,000 fishing vessels of its own, Vietnam detected as many as 6,000 incidents of IUU fishing in its exclusive economic zone since 2015, he said. Estimates show that IUU fishing globally is a $23.5 billion a year industry and China is the country where it is most prevalent.

Even using satellites, identifying offenders isn’t easy. Thousands of other vessels ply the waters. Before Covid, as much as $3 trillion of global trade sailed through the South China Sea, including more than 30% of maritime crude oil.

Maritime Hotspots

Global Fishing Watch aggregate of nighttime lights in the South China Sea

Sources: NASA, Global Fishing Watch

Global Maritime Trade Transits

Top 10 importers and exporters through the South China Sea in 2016

Source: China Power Project

What allows the vessels to spend weeks far from the coast is subsidies. China in 2018 doled out $7.2 billion in fishing subsidies, 21% of global total, according to Elsevier, $5.8 billion of which  was “harmful” because it expanded capacity. More than half the money is used to provide cheap fuel. In July, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels were spotted in waters around a protected reserve off the Galapagos Islands, 15,000 kilometers from China, prompting a further rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

In the South China Sea, overfishing, pollution, the effects of climate change and the destruction of reef where fish live and breed to build military outposts, are taking their toll on a resource that is critical to the surrounding countries.

Nobody really knows how badly the fishing grounds have been depleted or when the fish will run out. “Rigorous stock assessments are impossible because of the disputes, so the best scientists can do is guess,’” said Poling. Most assessments are based on declining catches. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates stocks in the South China Sea may have fallen by 70-95% since the 1950s, with catch rates dropping by 66-75% over the last 20 years.  

A fisherman looks out to sea from Iba in the Philippine province of Zambales.
A fisherman looks out to sea from Iba in the Philippine province of Zambales.
Photographer: Geric Cruz/Bloomberg

Bobong Lumuardo, a 45-year-old Filipino in Zambales province in Central Luzon, gave up fishing near the Scarborough Shoal two years ago, partly because of the threat from Chinese vessels, but also because there were fewer valuable fish to catch. “There is no point going there,” he said. “The Chinese Coast Guard is there, the corals have been destroyed and the first-class fish like snappers and Spanish mackerel are gone.”

The South China Sea accounted for 12% of global fish catch in 2015, yet more than half of the fishing vessels in the world operate there or in the East China Sea, CSIS estimates. “These environments are relatively fragile and can be easily overfished or destroyed,” said Simon Funge-Smith, a senior fishery officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Catch of The Day

Decades of overfishing have dangerously depleted stocks

Source: Seas Around Us

Failure to curb overfishing will do lasting damage to a vital source of food and exports for the nations involved. Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines together are projected to add about 150 million people to their populations over the next three decades and rising earnings in China and Southeast Asia are driving a surge in food consumption.

Funge-Smith said that a shift in national policies would help prevent fish stocks from being wiped out in vulnerable areas, while the development of a regional body that addresses fisheries management could go a long way to resolving the wider dispute. “It will not be the lack of fish that causes the fishing vessels to leave,” he said.

China has taken steps to rein in its expanding fishing fleet, capping the number of long-range vessels and clamping down on illegal fishing in waters near its coast. “There is a lot of progress in China’s policy and frameworks that regulate its fleets, however there are still a big space for China to do better,” said Pan Wenjing, forest and oceans manager for Greenpeace East Asia.

Chinese fishing boats set sail from Sanya, Hainan Province, on Aug. 16 after the end of the government’s 15-week fishing ban.
Chinese fishing boats set sail from Sanya, Hainan Province, on Aug. 16 after the end of the government’s 15-week fishing ban.
Source: by VCG via Getty Images

But China’s efforts to regulate fishing often only add to confrontation. In May, Beijing imposed a 15-week ban on all fishing in the South China Sea north of the 12th parallel—a restriction that covered most of the disputed sea—prompting an immediate backlash from other governments.

In Cai’s home port of Wanning, the moratorium ended with a ceremony by city authorities, with 300 boats heading out “amid the clamor of gongs and drums,” he said. Taobao, China's largest e-commerce platform, live-streamed sales of anticipated catches to buyers across the country. Summing up the patriotic fervor, Cai paraphrased a famous poem by former leader Mao Zedong that ponders the question of who rules the earth. "Hundreds of boats raced against each other toward the sea," he said.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Liuqiu Island.)

More On Bloomberg