This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How have environmental crimes evolved over the last 20 years?

Environmental crime has received less attention than other forms of transnational maritime crimes. Whereas IUU fishing and the trade of poached wildlife are foci of discussion, inclusion of other activities that are also detrimental to the environment and the ecosystems has been very slow. This is particularly true in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.[1] In addition to the traditional maritime crimes (i.e., IUU, illegal trade), new and emerging issues that hasten the effects of climate change and other problems have become more apparent in the past decade.

The illegal trade of marine wildlife and their products, in addition to the traditional land-derived materials (timber, fur, ivory, etc.), contributes significantly to biodiversity loss. For example, while the illegal trade of rare materials such as ivory and precious stones is well known, recently attention has shifted to giant clams as another commodity, with most of the harvest going to Japan and China[2]. The recent report by the Wildlife Justice Commission concerning a stockpile of around 133,000 tons of clams in the southern Philippines suggests that organized crime is involved, but this activity remains to be one of the least understood and poorly monitored crimes in the region. Increased interest has resulted from the “mining” of fossilized clams. These are usually found buried beneath existing reefs, so their retrieval causes decimation and degradation of living ecosystems, as has happened to many reefs in the South China Sea[3]. Illegal artificial island building in the South China Sea also destroys entire reef systems.

Although land-based pollution (e.g., eutrophication due to residential, agricultural, and industrial sewage)[4] and oil spills[5] have long been identified to be environmental crimes, recent attention has been given to the problem of plastics pollution. Different datasets suggest that many of the countries in Southeast Asia do not have proper waste management systems, and thus, largely contribute to the plastic waste ending up in the marine environment[6]. Aside from direct pollution due to waste mismanagement, studies showed the global trash trade to be a significant contributor to the trash released in the ASEAN waters. In addition to land-based sources, around 20% of marine plastic debris comes from ocean-based inputs such as large fishing fleets.[7] Nighttime fishing light data based on satellite images for example showed that the number of fishing vessels in SCS ranged from 60,000 during winter and summer to as much as 160,000 vessels during spring and fall fishing seasons[8]. The presence of these large fishing fleets with limited-to-no capacity for proper waste management and disposal systems could translate to a higher probability of trash being dumped into the ocean. “Ghost nets” or abandoned fishing gear have also been reported in many reefs in the South China Sea, but are difficult to track or monitor[9]. In addition, sewage dumping from fishing vessels has also been a concern, since periodic or repetitive release of organic waste in the same locality may induce blooms of phytoplankton and favor harmful species or proliferation of pathogenic bacteria (e.g., E. coli) that may further damage local ecosystems[10].

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to environmental crimes?

Many countries in Southeast Asia are party to international treaties to combat international and transnational crimes.[11] Notably, however, many of these instruments, are limited to a focus on wildlife, timber, and forest products, and most recently on combatting marine litter. Furthermore, many studies show that national laws designed to curb these crimes remain unoperationalized or otherwise ineffective.[12] Since maritime zones have very porous borders, implementing these agreements and crafting enabling laws in each country remains challenging. International policing organizations such as Interpol and the creation of National Task Forces, and the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) are also being used as arms to monitor, track, and stop these activities.

In the South China Sea, illegal trade has been very much linked to IUU activities, and the lack of organized joint patrols or fishing organizations has encouraged more of these activities taking place.[13] Meanwhile, recent progress on curbing plastics pollution was seen with the signing of the ASEAN Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris[14]. Operationalization remains challenging, especially in preventing transboundary transport given the interconnectedness in the marine environment. This also includes the utilization and exploitation of biodiversity and other resources beyond national jurisdictions, where forces for management and policing do not exist. Such issues are exacerbated by the geopolitical situation in the area. Recently, the crafting of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea has shown potential for strengthened cooperation in environmental protection, but has not yet been ratified. Generally, environmental cooperation at the regional scale to understand environmental issues and help craft policies to combat environmental crimes has been very limited. Science diplomacy has been suggested as a possible mechanism to stimulate and encourage cooperation and partnership amidst disputes on claims and territories.[15]

What are the primary harms the Environmental Crimes threat poses to regional stakeholders?

Environmental crimes are unique since they can have devastating consequences not only for the population of the country where they take place but also for those in other countries as well as future generations. Illegal fishing activities can cause collapse in fisheries, resulting in food insecurity and loss of other ecological services, which is detrimental since most communities in Southeast Asia depend on the seas for food. In the case of clam shell harvesting and artificial island building, the death of the existing reefs will affect the ecological connectivity of the entire South China Sea, where each of the reefs serves as steppingstones for many organisms to propagate and grow. The source and sink dynamics in the South China Sea reefs should be included in conservation frameworks that are very much vulnerable to both natural events and environmental crimes. The still unknown extent of plastics pollution is also detrimental to the health of the ecosystems from the coast to the open ocean, contributing to the already existing problems in the region.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the environmental crimes threat?

Availability of information remains a key step in increasing awareness to prevent these threats. Information and data allow identification of critical borders that are likely to be the site of illegal trade, areas of the sea that are most vulnerable to such crimes, the scale and cost of such activities, and even their potential ecological implications and consequences. For example, the use of light imaging data at night has revealed the presence of vessels that do not turn on their Automatic Identification System (AIS), which has been linked to a higher probability of illegal activities taking place and could guide authorities where to conduct seaborne operations.[16] This emphasizes the need for and importance of more effective data gathering, and the accessibility of these data for public or government use to combat environmental crimes. For other environmental crimes, information is very scarce and, if available, not accessible or shared due to lack of platforms or organizations/institutions that focus on them[17].

What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security challenges associated with environmental crimes?

The current geopolitical situation in the South China Sea has affected the ability of Southeast Asian states to act on these environmental crimes. Aside from organized networks and illegal traders, in some cases the perpetrators include national governments, as is the case in the subsidized fishing fleets, illegal reclamation and wildlife harvesting, and decimation of ecosystems by China. Due to the inherent nature of the oceans and the strong connectivity in the ecology of organisms, such disruptions will ultimately influence the coastal ecosystems of the Southeast Asian countries surrounding the basin. The presence of Chinese entities and the volatility of the situation in the area also hampers marine scientific research that could help authorities understand the status and predict potential trajectories of these ecosystems[18]. This limits the region’s ability to craft and implement sound and sustainable policies to help curb environmental degradation and prevent environmental crimes from occurring.

[1] Elliot, L. (2007). Transnational environmental crime in the Asia Pacific: an ‘un(der)securitized’ security problem? The Pacific Review, 20(4), 499-522.

[2] Maron, DF. (2021). Criminals are stealing giant clams – and carving them like ivory. Here’s why. Animals: Wildlife Catch. National Geographic Magazine published October 16, 2021. Retrieved from

[3] Master F. (2016). South China Sea reefs ‘decimated’ as giant clams harvested in bulk.

[4] UNEP. (2007). Land-based Pollution in the South China Sea. UNEP/GEF/SCS Technical Publication No. 10

[5] Interpol. (2021). Operation 30 Days at Sea 3.0 reveals 1,600 marine pollution offences worldwide. Publisheine 29 April 2021. Retrieved from

[6] OmeyerL.C.M. et al. (2022). Priorities to inform research on marine plastic pollution in Southeast Asia. Science of the Total Environment, 156704.

[7] Lyons, et al. (2019) A review of research on marine plastics in Southeast Asia: Who does What?

[8] Li, H., Liu, Y., Sun, C., Dong, Y., Zhang, S. 2021. Satellite observation of the marine light-fishing and its dynamics in the South China Sea. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, 9, 1394.

[9] Heazle, M. (2021). Assessing COVID-19’s “known unknowns”: potential impacts on marine plastic pollution and fishing in the South China Sea. Maritime Studies, 20, pages459–474 (2021).

[10] Tomacruz, S. (2021). Human waste, sewage likely from Chinese ships destroying Spratly reefs. Rappler. Retrieved from

[11] UNODC. (2009). Addressing the multiple threats of environmental crimes in East Asia and the Pacific, 2009-2012 Strategy for Technical Assistance. Retrieved from

[12] UNEP. (2019). UNODC. (2009).

[13] Santos J. (2022). South China Sea fish stocks to ‘collapse’ sans int’l cooperation, scientists warn. Manila Bulletin,

[14] ASEAN Secretariat. (2021). ASEAN Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Member States. Jakarta, May 2021.

[15] Borton (2021). How science diplomacy can help avert a South China Sea ecological disaster. South China Morning Post,

[16] Oceana. (2019). Strong enforcement operations and vessel monitoring data led to arrest of illegal commercial fishing suspects in Cavite, Press Release, June 19, 2019. Retrieved from

[17] Lycan, T. and Buskirk, V. (2021). What we know about marine environmental crimes. Report. Retrieved from

[18] Onda DFL. (2021). Marine scientific research in the South China Sea and implications beyond the pandemic. Analyzing War, Jan-Mar, (1):21-28.

About Deo Florence L. Onda

Deo Florence L. Onda is an Associate Professor and the current Deputy Director for Research of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.