The South China Sea fishery is heading for collapse, posing dangerous security risks in a hotly contested space, a new policy options paper published by the ANU National Security College has found.
The critical waterway contains 12 per cent of the world's fish and is an important source of protein for rapidly growing regional populations.
But at current rates of overfishing it could suffer a 50 per cent decline in key fish-stocks by 2045. The use of cyanide, dynamiting and reef destruction is not uncommon.
Author Dr Marina Tsirbas said as fish become more scarce, the risk of increased 'fishing nationalism' in the region rises.
"Domestic political pressure from disenfranchised fishermen or industries provides one of the greatest potential sources of pressure to governments, which could lead to conflict," she said.
This could already be seen in reactions by Indonesian President Joko Widodo last year to incursions by Chinese vessels into the Natunas, and Malaysia's concerns over Thai fishing vessels in its Exclusive Economic Zone.
The paper argues that an individual 'sovereignty-based' approach to a South China Sea rich in competing claims is impeding the proper management of this valuable resource.
It recommends establishing a neutral international fisheries management regime which could resolve this hurdle and encourage habits of cooperation among the countries involved. Highly developed consumer states and civil societies will need to play a role.
Australia should support the establishment of a regional fisheries management organisation to preserve the fish stocks of the South China Sea. Australia has extensive experience and is well-placed to offer practical support on fisheries management to regional countries.
Civil societies around the region should also promote, and governments support, greater transparency and awareness on fishing practices and marine degradation in the region to implement the new regime.
An opinion article by Marina Tsirbas is available on the APPS Policy Forum website.
The Full report is on the ANU National Security College website.