Sewage from more than 200 Chinese vessels in the contested South China Sea waters is threatening marine life.
The damage is so extensive, it can be seen from space, according to Simularity, a US satellite imagery analysis firm.
The Philippines, a claimant to the islands in the waters, said it's in the process of verifying the report.
Raw sewage discharged from more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels around the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is causing extensive damage to coral reefs, Simularity, a US satellite imagery analysis firm, said Monday.
"The sewage from the anchored ships in the Spratlys is damaging the reefs, and we can see this from space," Simularity founder and CEO Liz Derr said during a digital forum hosted by the Manila think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.
"The hundreds of ships that are anchored there are dumping raw sewage, every day onto the reefs they are occupying," said Derr during the presentation, adding "when the ships don't move, the poop piles up."
The satellite images taken over five years - between May 14, 2016 and June 17, 2021- show a stark contrast in alga growth. Researchers found that 236 Chinese vessels were recorded motionless In the waters during that time period.
Peter Koning, vice president of sales at Simularity, told Insider in an email that it is not normal for vessels to stay motionless for such long periods, and that they have been monitoring the ships for months.
Excess sewage encourages the growth of phytoplankton in the water, which can cause oxygen shortages. Without adequate oxygen supply in the water, coral reefs habitats can die.
"These bacteria consume oxygen that would normally be available to the fish, creating a 'dead zone,'" Simularity said in its report. Coral reefs take up to 10,000 years to form, and barrier reefs and atolls take between 100,000 and 30 million years to fully form.
"This is a catastrophe of epic proportions and we are close to the point of no return," Derr said.
Simularity warned that it's not just coral reefs that are at risk here, but fish stocks in the South China Sea - an important food source for the region.
The Philippines, one of the claimants to the South China Sea, said it is in the process of verifying Simularity's report.
"While we are confirming and verifying these wastes being dumped … We consider such irresponsible acts, if true, to be gravely detrimental to the marine ecology in the area," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement, per Reuters.
"China treating us as its toilet is a clear violation of both international and local environmental laws," Philippines Senator Grace Poe said in a statement, reported the Inquirer.
At least five countries lay claim to islands in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In 2016, the International Court of Justice, or The Hague, rejected China's claims in the South China Sea.
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