KUALA LUMPUR • Shoot-outs, boats being blown up or set on fire - South-east Asia's seas have become fiercely contested by increasingly desperate fishermen who face equally determined governments trying to protect the few fish that are left in the ocean.
Asia's appetite for fish is growing rapidly, driven by rising incomes and a switch to healthier diets. But that has accelerated the depletion of the region's fish stocks, forcing fishermen to venture further afield to fish illegally in the waters of other countries.
Add to this the hardening territorial claims to the South China Sea, driven largely by China's aggressive, and disputed, claims of sovereignty over much of the waterway. Facing growing appetites at home and the need to reinforce territorial claims, Chinese fishing vessels are encouraged to fish in the South China Sea and are protected by a well-armed and equipped Chinese coast guard, triggering clashes at sea, including recent skirmishes with Indonesia.
According to a 2015 University of British Columbia study, the South China Sea produces at least 10 million tonnes of fish or 12 per cent of the global catch each year, but the true number is likely much higher as the data does not take into account illegal and unregulated fishing.
Globally, overfishing is depleting oceans, with 90 per cent of the world's fisheries fully exploited or facing collapse, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The depletion of fish stocks is of serious concern as seafood provides a major source of protein and income for millions of poor people in coastal areas. Shortages and increased competition also aggravate the problem in other ways. Unregulated trawling and illegal methods such as blast-fishing destroy breeding grounds, racking up even greater problems for the future.
In a global fishing trade estimated at US$130 billion (S$176 billion), the top three fish-producing nations are all Asian - China, India and Vietnam.
Under President Joko Widodo, Indonesia has greatly ramped up its effort to protect its fisheries and the livelihoods of millions of fishermen deemed to be under threat by illegal fishing vessels.
Indonesia, home of the world's largest tuna fishing grounds, produces more than 100,000 tonnes of tuna a year. But 90 per cent of the roughly 5,400 local and foreign vessels that ply the Indonesian waters have no permits, putting the sector's losses to poaching at as high as US$25 billion annually.
Blowing up foreign vessels sends a powerful message, says Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and the rejuvenation of fishing stocks will help Indonesia's economy as other growth drivers falter, she told Bloomberg last year in Washington.
The Philippines has also been struggling to cope with plunging fish stocks, with 10 out of the 13 designated fishing grounds overfished. As a result, the population and size of small pelagic fish species, such as sardines and scad, are shrinking. Data from the fisheries bureau shows that the average daily haul of a Filipino fisherman has fallen to 4.76kg from as much as 20kg in the 1970s.
The Philippines is a major victim to poaching, with large numbers of Chinese vessels fishing in the disputed Spratly archipelago.
But it is not just the Chinese. In recent years, the Philippine Coast Guard has arrested fishermen from Vietnam and Taiwan.
To protect its depleting maritime resources, the Philippines is acquiring new patrol boats.
Chinese fleets, though, are not restricted to East Asia or the South China Sea. China, with growing wealth to buy seafood and the world's largest fleet of deep-sea fishing vessels, is fishing as far as West Africa, observers say.
An Ecuadorean judge has jailed 20 Chinese fishermen for up to four years for illegally fishing off the Galapagos Islands, where they were caught with 6,600 sharks, media reports said this week.