According to a new report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), new satellite images make it clear that China’ most destructive fishing vessels — their clam harvesting fleet – has returned to the South China Sea in force over the last six months and are again destroying pristine coral reefs and harming important fish habitat.

  • These fleets, which are typically comprised of dozens of small fishing vessels accompanied by a handful of larger “motherships,” destroy vast swaths of coral reef in order to extract endangered giant clams that are up to four feet in diameter.
  • The clamshells are then transported back to China where they are sold for thousands of dollars each in the market for jewelry and statuary.
  • These Chinese vessels had been largely absent from 2016-2018, but in the last year satellite imagery has shown these fleets operating frequently at Scarborough Shoal and throughout the Paracels, including at Bombay Reef — areas where there is already tension among many of the neighboring nations and China.

Chinese clam harvesters severely damaged or destroyed at least 28 reefs covering 50,000 acres across the South China Sea between 2012-2015, according to CSIS.  Typically, in order to extract the Giant Clams from within the reefs, poachers anchor their boats and then drag the reinforced props of their outboard motors across the reef surface to break up the coral, after which the clams can be easily lifted out, destroying the reef.

Why This Matters: The Chinese fleet’s destructive clam harvests are illegal under international law — they have already been found to be in violation of the Law of the Sea Treaty in a case brought against them by the Philippine government, who claimed that these are their fishing grounds.  Worse yet, this area is extremely contentious — it is home to major shipping lanes with three times more ships passing through than the Panama Canal, and fisheries that account for more than a tenth of all the fish caught in the world.  According to Greg Poling of CSIS, “when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Manila after the failed Hanoi summit with North Korea a couple of months ago, he clarified exactly this point that a Chinese attack on Filipino assets in disputed waters would fall under that obligation for the U.S. to respond.”

To Go Deeper:  You can read the CSIS report here and hear Greg Poling discuss their findings with NPR here.

Sediment plumes from destructive clam harvesting visible in images.

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