South China Sea ruling won't stop plundering of ecosystem, experts say

HONG KONG (Reuters) - An international tribunal’s ruling that China has caused severe harm to coral reefs and endangered species in the South China Sea will not stop further damage to an already plundered ecoystem, scientists and academics said.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on Tuesday that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea and that it had breached Philippine sovereignty by endangering its ships and fishing and oil projects in the energy-rich waters.

China claims more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area which accounts for more than a tenth of global fisheries production and is also claimed in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

“China will take no notice of the Hague ruling,” Brian Morton, Emeritus Professor of Marine Ecology at Hong Kong University, told Reuters. “And it will be virtually impossible to restore the reefs given global warming and destructive fishing techniques continuing.”

William Cheung, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said marine resources would still be at risk.

“I think the dispute is still posing large uncertainties to the management of resources and conservation of ecosystems in the South China Sea, after the Hague ruling,” he told Reuters.

“The PRC (People’s Republic of China) disputes the validity of the ruling. It means that cooperation between the countries bordering the South China Sea in managing the ecosystems is still challenging.”

The tribunal found that China’s large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial islands has caused severe harm to coral and violated the country’s obligation to preserve fragile marine environments.

“The tribunal also found that Chinese authorities were aware that Chinese fishermen have harvested endangered sea turtles, coral and giant clams on a substantial scale,” it stated.

In a commentary ahead of the ruling, China’s Foreign Ministry said the construction of artificial islands had a very small impact on the environment and once completed the country would be able to “greatly enhance the environmental protection of the reefs and relevant practices would stand the test of time”.

“China cares about the environment and ecology there more than any other country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. “In fact, we have taken many steps to protect the ecology and environment.”

But reefs in the South China Sea may not recover for up to 15 years, likely more if they are severely damaged and if dredgers continue to disturb them, according to a U.S. China Economic and Security report published in April.

“I am afraid that the Chinese say they will not honor the tribunal’s decision,” said Ed Gomez, a senior adviser at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.

“I think we have a long way to go. But we have to keep trying.”

Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Tris Pan in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie