Peace through Conservation in the South China Sea

Project: Peace through Conservation in the South China Sea

Principal Investigator: John W. McManus, PhD.
Dates: January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2020
Funding Sources: Funding support is critically needed.

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The South China Sea includes massive offshore reef systems which are crucial to the maintenance of fisheries and biodiversity throughout the region. Most prominent among these are Scarborough Atoll, Pratas Atoll, the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands. All of these areas are subject to overlapping claims by subsets of the six surrounding nations. Serious armed conflicts have broken out in the past, and arrests of each country’s fishing crews by other countries are common. People along the coastlines live under the constant threat of escalation to violence stemming primarily from competition over dwindling fishery resources.

Coastal fisheries are heavily overfished throughout most of the region, and a day’s fishing may yield only a few juvenile fish (see first photo). In the 1990’s we demonstrated that local extinctions of many reef fish species would be likely were it not for occasional ‘seeding’ of larvae from the offshore reef systems. This provided support for the establishment of a Spratly Island Peace Park. Over time, this idea has been endorsed by three regional presidents and become official policy in Taiwan.

Recently, the construction of large sand islands on many atolls (see second figure) has led to increased tensions, as well as to costly military expansions by the U.S. and several other nations. Because approximately five trillion dollars of shipping trade annually passes through the region, a serious conflict would pose a threat to the world economy. In March, 2015, the PI was asked to describe these issues at an international conference in Edgemont Palace, Brussels, to an audience including ambassadors and members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This was followed in May, 2015 by a presentation at the CSIS think tank in Washington DC, which was broadcast in China and Vietnam.

In addition to threatening critically needed supplies of larval fish to the region, the construction of the new islands may make it impossible for the atolls involved to keep up with sea level rise in the next few decades. Once sea level rises above the reef crests, large waves from the frequent typhoons may tear down the edges of the reefs, making it unlikely that any manmade structure will survive there in the future.

This project aims at conducting satellite map analyses, building predictive reef models, conducting field studies with regional colleagues, developing scenarios for transboundary environmental, tourism and fishery management, and making presentations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in support of achieving peace through conservation in the region.   


The easiest way to provide tax-deductible support to this project is to use the following link, choose ‘other’ from the pull-down, and designate “McManus Lab”. You can let us know to watch for it via a note to

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