Philippines Finds Massive Coral Reef Damage From Chinese Harvesting

Chinese fishing vessels at Iroquois Reef, Sept. 2023 (Armed Forces of the Philippines)
Chinese fishing vessels at Iroquois Reef, Sept. 2023 (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Published Sep 17, 2023 10:47 PM by Paul Benecki

The Philippine armed forces have accused Chinese fishing interests of illegally damaging coral on a vast scale at Iroquois Reef, a disputed land feature in the Spratly Islands. 

China maintains a large fleet of subsidized, militia-operated fishing vessels in the Spratly Islands and deploys them for presence and intimidation missions. In the past, Chinese fishing operators have long been accused of unlawfully harvesting in this region of the Philippine exclusive economic zone, often with overwatch provided by China Coast Guard cutters. Giant clams are prized for their shells in China, and Chinese fishermen will destroy reef structures in order to expose and catch valuable specimens. 

In a recent patrol past Iroquois Reef, the AFP discovered what it believes to be evidence of "massive" destruction of coral by Chinese fishing vessels. The boats departed when Philippine forces arrived. 

“When they left we send out our divers to do an underwater survey and . . . we saw that there were no corals left. The corals were destroyed," said Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, head of the AFP's Western Command, at a press conference.

Philippine forces had been stationed on scene to protect the reef for an extended period of time, but eventually they had to head back to port. After they departed, the Chinese fishing vessels descended on the reef, Carlos said. 

"We are the only ones who have the right to the West Philippine Sea, and it looks like someone is exercising that right without our permission," said Carlos. "We’d like to maintain 100 percent [presence], 365 days a year. But . . . our troops have to go back to port to refuel, to take some rest."

The Western Command has noticed an uptick in the number of maritime militia vessels in the Spratlys lately, with about 30 of the subsidized fishing vessels operating in Philippine waters. This is less than the 200-plus vessels spotted at Union Banks in 2021, but is still a matter of concern.

The good news for the Philippine government is that the resource destruction might provide enough justification for a new lawsuit against China. Former solicitor general Francis Jardeleza told the Manila Times over the weekend that the Philippines could sue China for actual damages at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague (PCA), based on the PCA's 2016 ruling in the Philippines' favor. In that case, the PCA rejected China's maritime claims in the South China Sea - but could not rule on damages, as no claim for compensation had been sought. According to Jardeleza, Manila could also sue for Chinese impacts on fisheries and other resources inside of the Philippine EEZ, and might be able to secure an award for exemplary (punitive) damages as well.