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The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea are usually portrayed as being centered on China’s brazen attempts to claim artificial islands and the waters surrounding them as extensions of its sovereign territory; rights to the 11 billion estimated barrels of oil beneath the sea; or access to the $5.3 trillion trade that passes through it. Fishing rights, when mentioned, usually come further down the list of possible casus belli among the nine countries contesting the waters of the South China Sea. However, recent attention to the scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has highlighted the importance of sustainable fish stocks to friendly international relations in the South China Sea and beyond.

With roughly 50 percent of its fish stocks fully exploited, 25 percent over-exploited and the other 25 percent completely collapsed, it’s not hard to see why relations among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are so fraught when it comes to maritime policy. This is not made easy by the growing appetite for seafood among Chinese consumers, whose consumption grew at a rate of 6 percent per annum between 1990 and 2010, to account for 34 percent of all fish consumed every year. What’s more, by 2030 Chinese consumption is expected to grow by another 30 percent.

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