Chinese fishing vessels are going scorched earth and pumping cyanide into contested waters, Philippine fishing authority says

A China Coast Guard vessel and China Coast Guard personnel on a rubber boat.
A Chinese coast-guard vessel and personnel on a rubber boat over Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea on Thursday.JAM STA ROSA / AFP
  • The Philippines' fisheries bureau says China is trying to "intentionally destroy" Scarborough Shoal.

  • The fish-rich atoll is hotly contested by China but internationally recognized as the Philippines'.

  • The bureau on Saturday accused Chinese vessels of pumping cyanide into the shoal's waters.

The Philippines' fishing bureau has accused Chinese fishing vessels of using cyanide to destroy Scarborough Shoal, a fish-rich atoll in the South China Sea contested by both Manila and Beijing.

"These Chinese fishermen use cyanide," Nazario Briguera, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said on Saturday, per a translation from Filipino by The Philippine Star.

Cyanide fishing is a controversial fishing method that typically involves dumping the highly toxic chemical near coral reefs or in fishing grounds to stun or kill fish so they can be easily captured.

It's widely condemned because it indiscriminately affects most marine species in the area, causes severe damage to aquatic ecosystems, and can make fish harmful to handle or eat.

But Brigeura accused the Chinese fishermen of using cyanide to also "intentionally destroy Bajo de Masinloc to prevent Filipino fishing boats to fish in the area," The Philippine Star noted. Bajo de Masinloc is the Spanish name for Scarborough Shoal.

The spokesperson estimated that the alleged use of cyanide would result in about $17,850,000 in damages to the region, the outlet reported.

The bureau said it hadn't conducted a formal study of the total damage but said it was a "serious concern," The Philippine Star reported.

An aerial view of Scarborough Shoal.
This photo taken on February 15, 2024, shows an aerial view of Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea.JAM STA ROSA/AFP

"We will see clearer, and we will have proof or evidence that this is really being done by Chinese fishermen and, apparently, other foreign fishers," Briguera said, according to a translation by the Philippine outlet GMA News.

But the Philippine coast guard on Sunday said it hadn't found any evidence of Chinese fishermen using cyanide and couldn't confirm the fisheries bureau's accusation.

"We don't have any scientific study or any evidence that would suggest that cyanide fishing in Bajo de Masinloc can be attributed to the Chinese or the Vietnamese fishermen," GMA News quoted a coast-guard spokesperson, Commodore Jay Tarriela, as saying.

In an email to Business Insider on February 23, the fisheries bureau said it based its accusation on reports from local fishermen.

"It is deeply concerning and we will be validating and investigating," the bureau's email said.

The Philippines' fishing industry was known to use cyanide fishing back in the 1960s to capture live fish for aquariums and restaurants, though the practice has become less common. In 2023, a study from the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation in Cebu, the Philippines, found that some Filipino fishermen still used cyanide in the South China Sea.

In response to the accusations, the Chinese state-linked tabloid The Global Times wrote that the Philippines had "groundlessly smeared" China over its cyanide claims. The outlet is known for sticking closely to Beijing's viewpoints.

Scarborough Shoal, a pristine atoll that's now a hotbed for tensions

Scarborough Shoal has been a focal point for territorial disputes in the South China Sea and is claimed by China, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

The Scarborough Shoal is contested by The Philippines, China, and Taiwan.
The Scarborough Shoal is contested by The Philippines, China, and Taiwan.Screenshot/Google Maps

The atoll, abundant with resources, has been used by Filipino fishermen for decades and was claimed by Manila in the 1930s. But China has more recently said the Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing discovered the shoal in 1279, and Chinese fishermen had plied the area throughout history.

In 2016, an international tribunal in the Hague overwhelmingly ruled in favor of The Philippines in a case deciding the ownership of the atoll. China rejected the ruling.

Beijing has since patrolled the region with warships and coast-guard vessels, establishing de facto control of the atoll and often chasing out Philippine fishermen.

Filipino fishermen aboard their wooden boats sailing past a Chinese coast guard ship near the China-controlled Scarborough Shoal, in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Filipino fishermen aboard their wooden boats sailing past a Chinese coast-guard ship near Scarborough Shoal, in disputed waters of the South China Sea.TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, fishing groups in the Philippines have said hundreds of Chinese vessels are entering the region and overfishing its waters. Researchers in Quezon City accused Chinese vessels in 2018 of damaging the atoll so much that the destruction could be seen on Google Earth.

More recently, the Philippines accused China's coast guard of using "dangerous" maneuvers to harass and block a Philippine ship delivering supplies to fishing vessels.

The Chinese embassy in Manila didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

February 23, 2023: This story was updated to reflect comment from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

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