Even if Southeast Asia’s politicians cannot agree on who owns which islands in the South China Sea, its scientists, at least, are working together.
Last week, some 40 scientists from eight Asean nations, China and Hong Kong, and other international experts, met here for a workshop on the South China Sea’s marine life.
The workshop, organized by Singapore’s Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and sponsored by the Singapore Government, was the group’s fourth formal meeting.
The first, in 1997, resulted in a multinational expedition in 2002 to the Indonesian Anambas and Natuna islands, during which new species were discovered by the scientists.
Studying the region’s marine life is vital for its countries to prepare for the impact of climate change, to conserve coral reefs and to keep its fishing grounds sustainable, said professor Peter Ng, museum director and chair of the workshop held at the National University of Singapore’s Kent Ridge Guild House.
The South China Sea has its own unusual marine biodiversity, he said, as sea-level changes in past Ice Ages meant there were isolated pockets where new species could evolve.
But now the region is threatened by climate change, development, over-fishing and pollution.
“Even in non-contested areas, whatever goes wrong can affect us because the seas are connected,” he said.
“What we know right now is just scratching the surface.”
One obstacle is access, he explained. Islands such as the Spratlys are hotly contested because they affect national boundaries.
Although they are rich in oil and gas deposits, and are good fishing grounds, claimant nations do not allow other countries’ scientists in.
Even researchers from neutral countries face a diplomatic minefield, Ng said.
When it comes to asking for permission to research islands whose ownership is in dispute, for example, “whomever we ask, we’re in trouble,” he said.
Joint expeditions such as the Anambas venture and a series of bilateral ones by Vietnam and the Philippines are one way around the problem, said Vietnamese researcher Vo Si Tuan of the Institute of Oceanography, who added that high-level agreements are necessary for such work.
The bilateral expeditions between 1996 and 2007, for example, stemmed from a meeting between Philippine president Fidel Ramos and Vietnamese president Le Duc Anh in 1994, Vo said.
At the workshop last week, checklists of species records were updated with new research. Youna Lyons, a legal scholar from the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, proposed a master database, open to all, that mapped the distributions of various species of corals and other animals.
Scientists at the workshop raised the idea of another multilateral expedition, especially to contested islands, or piggybacking on existing bilateral ones.
“The fact that it’s been done before with Anambas means it can be done again,” Ng said.
“If scientists can cooperate, it may be symbolic — let’s put aside our differences and get things done.
“We need to open up these places to more experts going in, not just from Asean but also from around the world.”
- Reprinted courtesy The Straits Times