Fishers on the Frontlines

Fishing communities connected by the South China Sea are struggling as their countries battle against IUU fishing – and each other, despite their shared heritage.

Lulu Ning Hui, 23 Aug 2021

Every day, thousands of artisanal fishers set off into the contested waterways of Southeast Asia, home to one of the most resource rich fisheries in the world.

Mostly from multi-generational fishing families, these fishers belong to coastal communities long used to depending on the sea. They fish not just for their daily subsistence, but also for their livelihoods, as their catch is sold into regional, national, and even global supply chains.

In recent years, however, the challenges have been unprecedented. In a region where maritime borders are being fiercely contested, these fishers often find themselves at the forefront of geopolitical battles. Countries in the region are competing not just for control of fisheries stock and other maritime resources, but also for sovereignty.

This, in turn, has led to a rise in what is known in the industry as IUU fishing (illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing), where vessels often use ecologically destructive fishing methods, and human rights abuses are common. As a result, seafood stocks have dropped alarmingly in the region, by up to 90%, according to estimates.

As part of a cross-border investigation by the Environmental Reporting Collective, local journalists spoke with fishers from across the region, some of whom have literally been on the frontlines not just in the battle against IUU fishing, but also in the struggle for political control over the South China Sea itself.

The governments of Vietnam, China, Indonesia and the Philippines have all encouraged their fishers to mark the countries' territories by fishing in contested waters. That's why fishers like Larry Hugo, from the island of Palawan, have had to relocate to unfamiliar, distant regions. Meanwhile, most fishers, like Rosilawati Ismail in Malaysia, are losing their livelihoods due to competition from IUU fishers.

And yet, older fishers like Zhang Zhi from China remember a time when fishers from across the South China Sea would occasionally cross paths, chat, and exchange food out at sea. This was a time long before geopolitics, technology, nationalism, and invisible lines cutting through the waters became more important than their shared connection to the sea.