MANILA • Chinese fishermen are destroying large areas of reefs near a group of Philippine-controlled atolls in the Spratly Islands, and there is not much that can be done to stop them, the BBC has reported.
"It goes on day and night, month after month," a Filipino mayor told the BBC on the island of Palawan.
"I think it is deliberate. It is like they are punishing us by destroying our reefs."
The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan all have overlapping claims in the South China Sea. But China claims almost all of the resource-rich waters in the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of maritime trade passes each year.
A BBC reporter said that as his small aircraft descended towards the tiny Philippine-controlled island of Pagasa, he saw at least a dozen boats anchored on a nearby reef, with long plumes of sand and gravel trailing out behind them.
"Look, that's what the mayor was talking about, that's the reef mining!" he told his cameraman.
Later, when the two men got onto the water, the reporter saw what he said was "complete devastation" of a place that had once been a rich coral ecosystem. The sea floor was covered in a thick layer of debris, millions of smashed pieces of coral, white and dead like bits of bone
The Chinese fishermen were also hauling away giant clams, about one metre across, that an online auction site said could fetch between US$1,000 and US$2,000 a pair.
On board the bigger fishing boats were hundreds more clam shells. The boats were identified as being from Tanmen, a fishing port on Hainan island, BBC reported.
In May last year, a boat from Tanmen had been caught on another reef by Philippine police who found several hundred endangered turtles, most of them dead. A Philippine court sentenced the nine Chinese poachers to a year's jail.
But the Chinese foreign ministry demanded that the poachers be immediately released and accused the Philippines of "severely violating China's sovereignty… by illegally detaining Chinese fishing vessels and fishermen in waters off China's Nansha Islands".
A Philippine marine corps officer said the destruction of the reef had been going on for at least two years.