Illuminating the South China Sea's Dark Fishing Fleets
(Source: CSIS; issued Jan 10, 2019)
The security implications of the South China Sea receive significant attention, and the disputants’ navies, air forces, and coast guards are studied closely to assess the balance of power and risk of escalation. But too little attention has focused on another key set of actors in the South China Sea—the fishers who serve on the front lines of this contest. Those fishers face a dire threat to their livelihoods and food security as the South China Sea fisheries teeter on the brink of collapse.

On January 9, CSIS inaugurated the Stephenson Ocean Security (SOS) Project, an initiative that examines the intersection of ocean health and global security. This project focuses on the ways ecological and socioeconomic changes interact to drive competition for marine resources and how such competition contributes to instability and geopolitical risk.

For its first Spotlight feature, AMTI director Gregory Poling undertook a six-month-long project in cooperation with Vulcan’s Skylight Maritime Initiative to leverage previously underused technologies and data sources to analyze the size and behavior of fishing fleets in the most hotly-contested part of the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands.

The results tell a worrying story about the scale of unseen fishing activity in the region, massive overcapacity in the Spratlys, especially on the Chinese side, and the stunning scale and expense of the maritime militia.

To read more on how Automatic Identification System, Synthetic Aperture Radar, and Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite data were used to shine some light on these critical issues, Click visit the SOS article here.


The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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