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Environmental Concerns
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Environmental Concerns:


The South China Sea is at the crossroads of the most biologically diverse region on earth - the Indo-Pacific. Its reefs and islets protect pristine associations of Indo-Pacific flora and fauna - coral, mollusks, fish, seabirds, and turtles, including rare and endangered species. Moreover, tuna, mackerel, scads, and coral reef fish stocks as well as stocks of shrimp and mackerel around the region are replenished from the Spratly area. It is estimated that their loss would reduce total catches of these fish in bordering countries by up to 25%. These spawning grounds are particularly important where coastal populations of adult fish are declining, as appears to be the case in the Philippines. In the vastness of the South China Sea, the islets are particularly important for the migration of birds, fish, and mammals and for the breeding and nesting of endangered species of sea turtles. 153

All the beaches and sand spits above high tide in the Spratlys have served as nesting sites for birds and turtles (Plate 13). Dolphins and whales migrate through the area. 154 Yellow fin tuna migrate from the Sulu Sea into the Spratlys from August to October, and return from June to August. 155 The waters are also a known breeding ground for tuna. 156 The value of yellowfin tuna migrating through the southern sector of the Spratlys alone has been estimated at us$ 50 million per year. 157 Guano deposits greater than three million tons have been reported from Northeast and Southwest Cays, and Thitu, Flat, Spratly, and Itu Aba Islands. 158 In sum, these islands, atolls, banks, and reefs may be thought of as a genetic savings bank where commercially important fish and invertebrates (as capital) are saved from overharvest (albeit unintentionally for now) and supply a constant flow of larvae (as interest) to areas of depletion.

If the larval supply from the Spratlys stabilizes certain populations under stress, then the next generation of larvae would likely have a similar effect on downstream populations. For example, larvae may pass from the Spratlys to the Paracel Islands in one generation, to Vietnam and the Natuna Islands in the next, and back to the Spratlys in the third generation. Disruption of this larval exchange system could seriously impair the adaptability of some species to future environmental changes.

Already the ecological assets of the Spratlys are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. Their fragile ecosystems are being threatened by occupation and construction, by environmentally damaging fisheries practices like muroami, and by waste and spills from ship traffic. Part of Itu Aba has been turned into a farm for producing pineapple. 159 Vietnam has been working on "experimental growing of trees for shade and fencing" on its islands. 160 Swallow Reef has been similarly altered. Several features have been largely covered by military, commercial, or scientific construction, and some features (e.g., Fiery Cross Reef) have been extensively dynamited. 161 On a number of features, bored troops have hastened the destruction. Most beaches are littered with tar balls, the remains of oil discharged from passing tankers. Tourism on Swallow, Mariveles, and Dallas Reefs, as well as a proposed resort on Thitu Island, may help preserve these individual, isolated ecosystems, but if the large-scale marine/island ecosystem of the Spratlys is to be protected, a more geographically extensive environmental regime will necessary.

All claimants have an interest as well as a responsibility to manage this precious area for the long term benefit of humankind. Perhaps this altruistic common cause can stimulate the claimants to cooperate. After all, a focus on biodiversity is non-threatening and does not involve nor necessarily alienate conventional resources. Conservation of biodiversity in this area would be supported by UNEP's East Asian Seas Action Plan and could perhaps be funded by the Global Environmental Fund. The sea turtle reserve proposed by Malaysia and the Philippines for the Sulu Sea could be a precedent for a joint marine park. 162

This fragile ecosystem could be protected through several possible approaches. Under one proposal, each islet and the reefs and waters within 12 nmi would be designated as a marine park, particularly for marine scientific research and eco-tourism. Another proposal is for a multi-use system in which different levels of protection are included in the management plan. Some areas would be exclusively protected for posterity and scientific investigation while others would be accessible to tourists and still others opened for managed exploitation of resources. A regional management approach would include provision of a network of reserves in the area which could "seed" each other with larvae.

One problem with these proposals is that oil companies may need to use the reefs and islets as platforms or bases for their drilling operations. And fish - at least tuna - are one of the coveted resources of this region. Also, many islets have already been heavily modified for military purposes and damaged ecologically. Whether or not the multiple-use concept can work is a difficult question. Another approach would be to designate as marine preserves those areas that are pristine, unoccupied, and unlikely to be of commercial or strategic use or value, and that contain particularly rare or fragile species or ecosystems.

Plate 7 displays the outlines of a possible regional marine biosphere reserve incorporating Thi Tu and Loai Ta Islands, Lam Kiam and Thi Tu Cays, and Subi Reef. A park in this area would exclude the areas with petroleum potential around the Reed Bank, Spratly Island, and the southern perimeter of the Spratlys. It would take advantage of the baseline studies and the environmental awareness of the Philippines. And it would not deprive the Philippines of any strategic locations, because the Philippines would still occupy the outlying Northeast Cay. This area has steep submarine dropoffs, especially northwest of Thi Tu and southeast of Loai Ta. Negotiations would be simplified by the fact that only the Philippines occupies these features. If the Philippines balks at a regime in which it would be the only state sacrificing hard-won territory, then nearby features occupied by other states could be included. Possibilities would include Loai Ta Cay (possibly occupied by China), Eldad Reef (possibly occupied by Vietnam), and Petley Reef (occupied by Vietnam). The massive park would thereby be extended to the southeast, adding more deep water, but would be precariously close to the heavily-armed Itu Aba Island and vicinity, Taiwan's outpost in the Spratlys.

Should the northern Spratlys - or even a portion thereof - be allocated to China under a general division of the Spratly region, all of this park area would fall in China's sector (Plate 14). This arrangement offers several advantages. For one, all of the park area would be under the management of a single state, thus simplifying the process of implementation. Second, the park would not cover all or even most of China's zone, leaving sufficient buffer space between the park boundaries and the edges of China's zone. Third, China would still retain access to Itu Aba, and could cooperate by allowing use of that island's airport and dock facilities for access to the park. And fourth, should other states balk at China being granted such a large portion of the Spratlys (albeit one with relatively limited petroleum prospects), they could perhaps be assuaged by being allowed some form of joint management or use of the park. Indeed, the other states would benefit even if they had nothing to do with the park - because the Spratlys serve as a biological seed bank for the entire South China Sea.

Where jurisdiction does not impinge on that of neighboring occupied islands, hypothetical baselines could be drawn connecting these islands, cays and reefs, and territorial seas could be allowed around the islets themselves. A core area could then be set aside for conservation, and a limited-use buffer zone drawn around the core area. The emphasis should be on conservation, marine scientific research, and ecotourism. Management could be undertaken by a board consisting of members representing each of the five claimant states.

A third, not necessarily mutually exclusive, approach would be to incorporate the environmental-impact-assessment, precautionary, and compensation principles into any activities allowed in the core area. Also, such activities could be subject to a veto through chambered voting, i.e., those claimants of a particular area could veto an activity on environmental grounds. Comparable precedents can be found around the world, most notably in the Mediterranean. 163 The Spratly Marine Park should follow guidelines that have been developed by UNEP and other organizations for protected marine areas.

To begin this process, a workshop could be held on the environmental resources and conditions of th