Philippines blames China for loss of giant clams in disputed shoal

20 May 2024, 14:24

Fishermen scouring the seabed
Philippines China Disputed Shoal. Picture: PA

Officials have called for an international inquiry into environmental damage in the area.

The Philippines has blamed Chinese fishermen for a massive loss of giant clams in a disputed shoal controlled by China’s coast guard in the South China Sea, and urged an international inquiry into the amount of environmental damage caused in the area.

The Philippine coast guard presented surveillance photographs of Chinese fishermen harvesting large numbers of giant clams for a number of years in a lagoon at Scarborough Shoal, but said signs of such activities stopped in March 2019.

Parts of the surrounding coral appear to be badly scarred, in what the coast guard said was apparently a futile search by the Chinese for more clams.

The lagoon is a prominent fishing area which Filipinos call Bajo de Masinloc and the Chinese call Huangyan Dao, off the north-western Philippines.

Disputed shoal
The coast guard images show plastic containers containing collected topshells by Chinese fishermen at Scarborough shoal back in 2019 (Philippine Coast Guard via AP)

Philippine coast guard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said at a news conference: “Those were the last remaining giant clams that we saw in Bajo de Masinloc.”

National Security Council assistant director general Jonathan Malaya added: “We are alarmed and worried about the situation that’s happening there.”

He said China should allow an independent inquiry by experts from the United Nations and environmental groups.

The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Beijing has repeatedly asserted its sovereignty over much of the busy South China Sea.

The territorial disputes involve China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The Indonesian navy has also been involved in skirmishes with the Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels in the Natuna waters in the margins of the South China Sea.

Water cannon strike
A Philippine Coast Guard vessel is hit with water cannon by Chinese Coast Guards (Philippine Coast Guard via AP)

The Philippines has adopted a policy of publicising China’s increasingly assertive actions in the contested waters to gain international support, and the news conference was its latest effort to condemn China’s stewardship of Scarborough Shoal.

China effectively seized the shoal in 2012 after a stand-off that ended when Philippine government ships withdrew based on what Manila said was a deal brokered by American officials to ease the dangerous confrontation.

China reneged on its promise to remove its ships and has since surrounded the shoal with coast guard and suspected militia ships, according to Philippine officials.

Since then, the Chinese coast guard has had a series of skirmishes with Philippine patrol ships and fishing boats, which have been prevented from entering the lagoon, ringed by mostly submerged coral outcrops. Three weeks ago, Chinese ships fired powerful water cannon that damaged Philippine coast guard and fisheries vessels.

Disputed shoal demo
A flotilla of about 100 mostly small fishing boats led by Filipino activists held a protest earlier this year in the South China Sea (Akbayan Party via AP)

Mr Malaya said: “They’re preventing us from getting into the lagoon. We can ask third-party environmental groups or even the United Nations to do a fact-finding mission to determine the environmental situation.”

The Philippines has brought its territorial disputes with China to international arbitration and largely won.

The 2016 ruling invalidated China’s expansive claims to much of the South China Sea, a key global trade route, on historical grounds and cited Chinese government actions that resulted in environmental damage in the offshore region.

China refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected its ruling and continues to defy it.

The territorial hostilities have sparked fears of a larger conflict that could involve the US, which has warned that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its long-time treaty ally, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea.

By Press Association

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