By Hannah Beech
Time, 1 June 2016
Most ecologically harmful is China’s construction of artificial islands, which biologists say could lead to permanent ecocide.
From his living room in the Chinese fishing port of Tanmen, Pu Xidong offers up a giant-clam shell for $1,200 — a great deal, he says, for a bivalve that can live up to 100 years. Or how about a bloom of endangered red coral for a little less cash? The fisherman from China’s southernmost island province of Hainan extracted both from the distant — and contested — reaches of the South China Sea. Armed with thousands of dollars in government subsidies and a free satellite-navigation system that would cost tens of thousands of dollars on the open market, Pu regularly ventures out to the Spratly Islands, a sprinkling of isles and reefs that are claimed by various regional governments. “I feel more safe now,” he says, of the Chinese government’s assistance to his fishing expeditions. “Fishing is dangerous work.”
The high-stakes game of geopolitics being played out in the South China Sea is plain to see. Six governments claim overlapping parts of the 3.5 million-sq-km sea, and its waters have emerged as a potential flashpoint not only between the various claimants but also between a rising China and the world’s established superpower, the U.S. The environmental impact of this maritime conflict, though, is equally damaging — and already far more visible. China’s appetite for endangered giant clam shells, which are carved like elephant ivory for interior decor and jewelry, has denuded swaths of the South China Sea as boats scrape reefs to expose the massive mollusks. Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s support for local fishermen has made venturing into contested areas more economically attractive, exacerbating the overfishing that already plagues the waterway.
Most ecologically harmful is China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, which depends on dredgers to churn up coral reef and smother them with sand and gravel to create land. Since 2014, China has transformed seven mostly underwater reefs into artificial islands, including ones with runways long enough to welcome military jets. “The worst issue with the island-building is that the effect is permanent,” says John McManus, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami. “Once a portion of coral reef has been buried under tons of sand and gravel, it cannot ever recover. Imagine telling this to our grandchildren.”
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most biologically diverse marine environments, boasting around 500 species of reef-building coral, compared with around 70 in the Caribbean, according to McManus. In addition to its role as a conduit for more than $5 trillion in maritime trade, the sea’s waters also teem with at least one-tenth of the world’s fish stock — an ever more valuable resource as global hunger for seafood increases. (Fishing was worth $130 billion last year, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.)