In November 2022, US Vice President Kamala Harris made a trip to a small fishing village in Palawan to stress Washington’s commitment to an ironclad alliance with its oldest ally in the region, the Philippines.

Harris, the first top US official to set foot on the country’s westernmost island, underscored the importance of a rules-based international order and the unimpeded lawful commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Without directly referring to China, she criticized Beijing’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the disputed sea.

Harris said Chinese activities in the South China Sea were a direct threat to the ecosystems and economies of coastal states, especially the Philippines. It is a threat to the country’s food security.

An estimated 520 million people rely on fishing and related activities and 2.6 billion depend on fish as an important part of their diet.

Ten months after Harris spoke about the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in the South China Sea, the Philippine military and coast guard found evidence of the destruction of the ecosystems on two features on the disputed West Philippine Sea.

Philippine authorities accused China of removing and destroying underwater coral reefs on Escoda Shoal and Rozul Reef, two features within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the Philippines had no direct evidence the Chinese were behind the destruction of the coral reefs.

But it was also a fact that the destruction happened while Chinese militia vessels were swarming around the two features.

However, these Chinese activities are not new. Chinese fishermen have been hauling giant clams and using destructive fishing techniques in Scarborough Shoal and other areas in the Spratly chain of islands.

More than a decade ago, China wantonly destroyed shoals and reefs to build seven artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Although China has the biggest fishing fleet in the South China Sea, it is not alone in doing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities.

The Philippines could also be guilty of using illegal fishing activities. Thousands of its small fishing boats were unregistered.

According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Philippines has been losing nearly P70 billion a year from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Local fishermen’s groups also blamed China for the huge drop in their fish catch — almost 70 percent since 2020 — because Chinese coast guard and militia vessels have been preventing them from getting near traditional fishing grounds in the West Philippine Sea.

As a result, there was overfishing because local fishermen could not access fishing grounds in the Spratlys and were only fishing within municipal waters and much closer to the shorelines.

Vietnamese fishermen were also competing with local fishermen as China has also prevented them from fishing in the Spratlys.

Some of the Vietnamese fishermen have been fishing within 30 nautical miles from coastal areas in Palawan and western Luzon.

Malaysian, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong fishermen have also started competing with local fishermen as China held a tighter grip on traditional fishing grounds in the South China Sea.

Overfishing is becoming a problem in coastal areas in the Philippines because these fishermen have ventured into areas where they are not allowed, like protected and spawning areas.

Local fishermen were disadvantaged because they used smaller indigenous boats compared with larger foreign fishing vessels.

Local fishermen can only haul five to six tons of fishes but most Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Taiwanese fishermen have larger boats that can carry more than 20 tons of fish.

But the biggest problem comes from China. It not only prevents local fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds, it also destroys the ecosystem.

In the event the shoals and reefs can no longer host marine life due to China’s destructive fishing, Beijing can move closer to Philippines coastal areas.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea. It has deployed militia vessels as close as 120 nautical miles from Palawan.

But Chinese coast guard and navy vessels have started patrolling areas as close as 100 nautical miles, near Half Moon Shoal or locally known as Hasa-Hasa reef.

In the past Chinese fishermen were caught around Hasa-Hasa reef while a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate had run aground in the area.

The United States and Japan, two of the world’s biggest seafood markets, have expressed concern over China’s illegal, unreported, and regulated fishing activities.

It has offered to provide the Philippines real-time information on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the South China Sea.

Canada has promised to provide some data through its Dark Vessel Detection program, helping coastal areas from the Indo-Pacific region through satellite-based data and analysis.

However, this information would not be enough to stop illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

The Philippines needs to patrol the vast South China Sea to protect marine ecosystems from destruction.

It has limited capabilities. It needs support from other countries to patrol the South China Sea.

It is high time for like-minded countries to guard the marine ecosystems.

Send the patrol now and drive away Chinese militia vessels from uninhabited features and stop them from further destroying the lifeblood of the country’s economy.