REACTION: Fisheries in the South China Sea: Missing parts of the bigger picture

Posted on 15 December 2015

A new report from the University of British Columbia outlines existing threats to fisheries in the South China Sea, and projects what these fisheries and seafood supply may look like in 30 years’ time. Here, WWF’s own Dr Geoffrey Muldoon offers his views on the publication.
By Dr Geoffrey Muldoon, Senior Manager for Business and Industry, WWF Coral Triangle Programme

Drs Rashid Sumaila and William Cheung from the University of British Columbia (UBC) recently produced a report, Boom or Bust: The Future of Fish in the South China Sea, outlining existing threats to fisheries in the South China Sea (SCS), and projecting what seafood supply from these fisheries may look like in 30 years’ time under different management and climate change scenarios.

Without offering any groundbreaking new themes or insights, the report serves to reinforce the status and threats to fisheries being exploited within the SCS. It almost succeeds in tying current status of and future scenarios for these fisheries to food security and livelihood issues, but, in my view, falls short of linking these in a useful way. More on that later.

Probably the biggest problem faced by fisheries of the SCS is an acute lack of usable data on fishing effort and catch across all sectors. This has not prevented the report from estimating that biomass has been fished down to between 5% and 30% of their 1950 levels.

Two particularly compelling points raised are that first, catch and value attributed to the small-scale fisheries sector is virtually ignored in most statistical datasets (e.g., FAO); and second, that while the extent of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing remains highly indeterminate, it is believed to represent as much as 60-70% of declared catches. Both these declarations serve to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge of turning around fisheries in the SCS, and securing a future for those that depend on these resources.

The economic impact of declining catches, both in terms of quantity and quality, is genuine, and while such impact is difficult to quantify, this report neatly summarizes the historical and potential future losses from overfishing accrued by fishing nations adjacent to the SCS; it is estimated that millions of tonnes of fish and 20–50% of revenues have been lost to this practice. The obvious ramifications are the negative food security impacts, and while the report underlines FAO’s prediction that “reducing fishing effort by 50-60% will arrest stock declines and raise revenues,” it comes across as almost a throwaway line, and misses the opportunity to identify other potential solutions.

Given the “aspirational” and challenging target of significantly reducing fishing pressure amongst some of the world’s most marine resource-dependent communities, the spotlight could have been shone more intensely on alternatives including, but not limited to, aquaculture, value-adding, improving quality and reducing wastage, and arresting the contribution of IUU to “foregone” revenues.

While the report does recognize most of the underlying factors at play in countries that border the SCS, and that the main objective is stated as describing the future of fisheries in the SCS “under different management and climate change scenarios,” what strikes me most is not what is included, as what is not. Let me expand on where I see three key points of absence in the discussion at the level of detail useful for reinforcing the main messages.  


There is general consensus that globally, wild catches that have stabilized since the 1990s will at best be maintained at current levels only over the next few decades (World Bank, 2013), placing a growing pressure on aquaculture to meet the demands of an ever-expanding population.

The World Resources Institute (Waite et al., 2014) estimates that production from aquaculture will need to almost double by 2050 to meet future seafood needs. All other things being equal, this will increase demand for resources like land, energy, and fish feed, and will thus require “sustainable intensification” to increase in production without compromising the environment.

As the report notes, 5 of the top 10 aquaculture producers are SCS countries, and so any scenario-building on the state of wild fisheries, linked to food security and livelihoods, should factor in the role that aquaculture can play in offsetting reduction in and availability of wild catches, redirecting displaced fishing effort, and compensating for rising fish prices.

Domestic consumption

The report acknowledges that the contribution from the small-scale fisheries sector and IUU fishing leads to a significant underestimation of catches, but the focus on the role of trade, and how relevant tools and markets can leverage change, has overlooked a key factor: domestic supply chains. Issues such as how much domestic production goes toward domestic consumption, evolving demographics of domestic consumers, and lower receptiveness of domestic markets in terms of sustainable consumption choices should be considered.

Population growth and economic growth in China and the ASEAN countries bordering the SCS are amongst the highest in the world, and with that comes significant increases in demand generally and for higher-value species specifically. Compounding this, in terms of fish catches, is that for most of the SCS countries, 85-95% of domestic production from all sources is locally consumed. Thailand and Vietnam, at around 60%, are exceptions, but both countries are major exporters of farmed product and have a significant processing sector. Local consumption of wild-caught seafood is likely to mirror that of the other countries.

The implications of overlooking the impacts of domestic supply chains is that of potentially overestimating the extent to which trade-oriented solutions can deliver improved sustainability more broadly.

Demand outside SCS

The report’s objectives are both understanding and addressing the root causes of challenges facing the world’s oceans, and the need for solution-oriented policy options to improve sustainability. It tries to achieve this, however, through the lens of seafood consumption in Hong Kong.

The attempt to answer these “big” sustainability questions, by shining its trade and market spotlight on Hong Kong, intrigued me. While making much of the fact that Hong Kong receives 22% of imports from SCS countries, there is no indication of what percentage of exports from SCS countries are destined for Hong Kong. While not having figures at hand, it’s likely to be quite a small number, and so one must question what sort of impact this can have on domestic policies of SCS countries, given that European Union (EU) and North American markets, as major destinations for seafood from this region, demand much greater transparency and accountability around their seafood imports.

Moreover, the report tries to establish a link between seafood imported to China from SCS countries and seafood exported from China to Hong Kong. This to my mind overlooks that China has an increasingly wealthy and populous middle class consuming more seafood; that China likely imports high-value seafood for local consumption and exports lower value seafood, mostly cultured and produced in China, to Hong Kong; and that trading patterns outside SCS countries see them exporting mainly high-value species and importing low-value species, some of which have implications on livelihood, incomes, and food security (Smith et al., 2010).

In summary, undoubtedly, the long-term sustainability of fishery and marine resources in SCS countries hinges on improved management and governance systems on a regional scale, and stronger intergovernmental cooperation. The report strongly endorses these collaborative measures, while acknowledging some inherent roadblocks. WWF, as a strong advocate for both the need to reduce CO2 emissions to minimize impacts of ocean acidification and for eliminating and redirecting current harmful subsidies toward building more sustainable fisheries, strongly agrees with the authors in this regard.

What is frustrating is the emphasis put on consumer-based advocacy efforts and market-based certification as solutions. These strike me as decidedly inadequate to address what are far more systemic challenges requiring more far-reaching and inclusive, innovative, and technically-based responses. Spotlighting the role of certification and responsible consumption overly simplifies the solutions, given that most SCS fisheries are far from being certified, and serve mainly domestic markets that are much less receptive to “eco-labels.” Linking actors along the whole supply chain whose collective goals are stepwise improvements in fisheries is a more suitable holistic approach. For export fisheries, this can be linked to certification, but new and innovative approaches are needed to help transform domestic fisheries, such as the use of positive subsidies to demonstrate the “business case” for improvement.

From an IUU standpoint, traceability and catch documentation schemes are receiving increasing recognition for both industrial and small-scale fisheries, and numerous pilots are now underway, trialing these technical solutions. Finally, aquaculture will play a central role in terms of future food security and livelihood, and new technology will be critical to improving environmental performance and efficiency in areas such as the reliance on wild-caught fish for food, which can actually compete with human consumption needs.   



World Bank. 2013. Fish to 2030 : Prospects for fisheries and aquaculture. Agriculture & Environmental Services discussion paper; no. 3. Washington DC ; World Bank Group.

Waite, R., Beveridge, M., et al., 2014. Improving productivity and environmental performance of aquaculture. In: World Resources Institute (Ed.), Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Washington DC.

Smith, M.D., Roheim, C. A., (2010) Sustainability and Global Seafood. SCIENCE VOL 327;327/5967/784
These men harvested about 4 tons of milkfish from this pond.
© Jürgen Freund / WWF