Troubled Waters: Search for Dwindling Resource Turns Violent in South China Sea

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Global demand for seafood has risen steeply in the past decade, with the US alone consuming an average of 5 billion pounds of seafood a year. This insatiable global appetite is leading to mass loss of biodiversity, as well as increased costs to human wellbeing and economic activity. A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that the share of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 percent in 1974 to 68.6 percent in 2013. Declining resources have sparked territorial disputes concerning coveted fishing grounds throughout the South China Sea, with regional players such as China, Vietnam, and Indonesia all battling for their claims, according to an April 2016 report in Foreign Policy by Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce.

The World Bank estimates that Asia will account for up to 70% of global fish consumption by 2030, with China alone accounting for 38%. This demand, coupled with chronic overfishing, has forced Chinese fishing fleets to venture out farther and farther into often disputed territories, where they then clash with the fleets of neighboring countries. This has led to the militarization of the region’s multinational fishing fleets. As Johnson and De Luce report, militarized fishing vessels act as tools for cementing sovereignty as much as engage in fishing. They quote a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, “It used to be [that] the flag followed trade, helping you acquire colonies; now, the [Chinese] flag follows fishing, helping you acquire indisputable sovereignty… In both cases, private interests act as the vanguard, justifying the state’s reaching for the gun.”

While bits and blurbs about conflicts in the South China Sea have made it into US corporate news, there has not been significant coverage. CNN for example, will cover American military movements in the region, but not comment on other aspects affecting the tensions in the region such as climate change and overfishing.

Source: Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce, “Fishing Disputes Could Spark a South China Sea Crisis,” Foreign Policy, April 7, 2016,

Student Researcher: Jules Stuber (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)