September 27, 2011

Climate Change, Fisheries and the South China Sea

A short editorial in this morning’s New York Times caught my attention, particularly because it’s
relevant to a project on the South China Sea that we are close to wrapping up
here in the next few months. At first glance the editorial, “Climate
Change and the Exodus of Species
,” may not have any obvious connections to
national security policy, but I guarantee you it does.   

most humans, so far, climate change is still more of an idea than an experience
the editorial states. “For other species, it is an immediate reality. Many will
be left behind as the climate alters, unable to move quickly enough or with
nowhere to move to. Others are already adapting. An iconic example of these
swift changes is the recent discovery that Atlantic and Pacific populations of
bowhead whales — long kept apart by the frozen Arctic — are now overlapping in
the open waters of the Northwest Passage.”

When I read this my mind immediately jumped to fisheries.
Why, you ask? Because fisheries are a crucial part of some states’ economies,
and competition over access to fish stocks is troubling in regions of the world
like the South China Sea. Indeed, Vietnam and China in particular have had
longstanding grievances over access to fish in the South China Sea. China
claims the entire sea as its own territorial water and enforces fishing
regulations in the region. Vietnam has historically rejected China’s claim to
the entire South China Sea, and Vietnamese fishing trawlers have been
interdicted and seized by the Chinese for allegedly violating their territorial
waters and illegal fishing. These standoffs between China and Vietnam have
precipitated some pretty intense diplomatic exchanges. But what does this have
to do with the New York Times editorial?

Competition over access to fish in the South China Sea is likely
only to become worse as fish stocks migrate due to changes in the climate.
According to the editorial:

A team of scientists from the
University of York examined the movement of 2,000 animal and plant species over
the past decade. According to their study, published in
Science last month
, in their exodus from increasing heat, species have
moved, on average, 13.3 yards higher in altitude — twice the predicted rate —
and 11 miles higher in latitude — three times faster than expected. These
changes have happened most rapidly where the climate has warmed the most. Chris
Thomas, an author of the study, says, these changes “are equivalent to animals
and plants shifting away from the equator at around 20 centimeters per hour”
for the past 40 years.

The findings from the study are consistent
with the U.S. Navy’s latest
Arctic Environmental Assessment
that found that “Fish
continue to move poleward into Arctic waters due to increasing water
.” What this means is that fish stocks in the South China Sea
are projected to migrate north (poleward) toward cooler waters as the water in
the region continues to warm. For Vietnam, this may force fish stocks farther
north and closer to China. Given the importance of maritime fisheries to the
Vietnamese economy (and its peoples’ daily diet), Vietnamese fishing trawlers are
likely to take a risk and move closer to China to develop those fish stocks. If
I had to guess then I would say that competition for fish and the potential for
skirmishes between China and Vietnam could be on the upward trend. It could
complicate U.S. relations in the region at a time when the United States seeks
to move closer to Vietnam while walking a fine line with China in the region. It
is something that policymakers charged with crafting U.S. policy in the region
should be attuned to.

Image: A map depicting territorial claims by states ringing the South China Sea. The red line reflects the territorial claim made by China. Courtesy of Voice of America.