China's 'most destructive' boats back in Scarborough – think tank

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 21) — Chinese clam harvesting fleets have returned to disputed waters in South China sea in the last six months, a U.S.-based maritime think tank said.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reported fresh sightings of "destructive" Chinese vessels near the disputed islands, which are out to harvest endangered giant clams sold for thousands of dollars apiece.

"After a sharp drop-off in activity from 2016 to late 2018, Chinese clam harvesting fleets have returned to the South China Sea in force over the last six months," AMTI said in a report published Monday.

The Chinese are sending huge "motherships" — about 30 meters long — accompanied by dozens of small fishing vessels to harvest the expensive clams, locally known as taklobos

READ: DFA chief: China has to pay for clams harvested in Scarborough

"Since late 2018, satellite imagery has shown these fleets operating frequently at Scarborough Shoal and throughout the Paracels, including at Bombay Reef," the report added.

AMTI said these poachers anchor their boats and drag "reinforced props" across reefs to break the coral in order to lift the clams from the sea floor.

Images captured in December 2018 showed the presence of even more clam boats around Scarborough Shoal, known locally as the Panatag Shoal, with reefs seeing deeper damage as of March 8.

The report said latest photos also show proof that Chinese poachers are now using more damaging methods to harvest deep-sea clams by using a high-pressure water pump to remove sediment from the seabed, which Filipino fishermen described to be a "very destructive" practice. 

A satellite image captured on April 11 likewise captured sediment plumes and reef scarring at Bombay Reef, confirming clam harvesting in the area. This, despite the presence of China's Ocean E-Station meant to monitor all activity at sea.

Photos likewise show intense scarring on reefs at Passu Keah also in Paracel Islands, with satellite images revealing damage as of November 4, 2018 compared to February of that year.

"Now, as then, Chinese authorities are aware of and appear to condone the activities of these fleets," AMTI said.

READ: Think tank flags increase in number of Chinese fishing vessels in Spratlys

On April 7, during the same period that Chinese maritime milita vessels were clustering around Philippine-occupied Loaita Island and Loita Cay, a mothership and small boats were also spotted at nearby Lankiam Cay or Panata Island, although AMTI said there is no clear evidence of new clam harvesting in Spratlys. 

"The absence of new scarring on Lankiam Cay after this boat’s departure would have previously indicated that no clam harvesting had taken place. But the new methods being used to extract clams at Scarborough Shoal suggest that documenting the activities of these Chinese fleets has become more difficult," AMTI said, noting that the use of water pumps in deeper waters is "unlikely to be visible" via satellite imagery.

The Philippines lost control of Scarborough after a 2012 standoff with China, prompting Manila to file a case for international arbitration. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Abritration in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims to the South China Sea.

The tribunal also noted China's destruction of the marine environment in the area and its violation of Filipino fishermen's rights to fish in Scarborough Shoal. The ruling largely favored the Philippines in the 15 points it brought up for arbitration, and recognized Manila's sovereign rights in some of the features being claimed by China that were within the country's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

On May 3, the Philippine Supreme Court issued a writ of kalikasan ordering government officials to protect the marine environment in the West Philippine Sea amid the dispute with China, in response to a petition filed by fishermen from Palawan and Zambales who have been displaced by Chinese poachers.

The petitioners said these maritime featurs are now heavily damaged by China's artificial island-building activities, and that the government should not neglect them.