Vietnam’s most productive marine areas are in the South China Sea (SCS), which lies due east of Vietnam and south of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Vietnam has approximately 2,000 miles of coastline which faces the SCS, giving the Vietnamese fisherman access to over 3,000 species of fish and other aquatic fauna. However, these waters are becoming increasingly depleted due to overfishing by several nations. Harmful fishing methods, such as drag nets (bottom trawling), explosives, and the use of chemicals have damaged the marine ecosystem by harming local coral reefs. The PRC’s construction of new islands in the region has destroyed additional habitats and severely reduced available fishing areas. To make matters worse, the SCS is also a conflict zone because of a dispute between Vietnam, the PRC, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia over the Paracel Islands.
South China Sea has long been contested among neighboring nations, but it was only when the PRC sought to claim ownership of the Paracel Islands in 1974 that excessive violence became common. Skirmishes, including the ramming and sinking of wooden fishing boats, the stealing or destruction of fishermen’s catches, and even the killing of fishermen were—and still are —attributed to the PRC and their metal-hulled vessels. This violence has reduced the number of Vietnamese fishermen willing to take their chances on the waves of the SCS and thereby caused thousands of small fishing communities to struggle both economically and culturally.
Perhaps because of their fabled fascination with the sea, Vietnam has an insatiable taste for seafood. In 2017, each of the nation’s 97 million residents consumed an average of 68 pounds of seafood per year. Vietnam is currently the fourth-largest exporter of fish in the world and the third-largest consumer. Over 4.5 million people are employed by the Vietnamese fishing industry—an industry which creates four to five percent of the nation’s total gross domestic product. These statistics rely on the ability of coastal fishermen to maintain a thriving seafood and fishing industry, but violence and uncertainty in the SCS makes this more and more difficult.
Despite the dangers in the SCS, fishing is more of a way of life than it is a simple job for these coastal villages. Generations of families have followed the same path for centuries, forever passing on knowledge of the sea and its inhabitants. Increasing violence from the PRC has ended this tradition for countless families. Coastal communities, along with their economic networks, have crumbled with the collective need to find employment and income elsewhere. Most fishermen, who only have the skills and training to fish, suffer from minimal education and a lack of local job alternatives, making the job search incredibly difficult.
Since a reduction in violence in the SCS in the near future is highly unlikely, options for sustaining both a livable income and a traditional way of life are limited. A possible solution, however, comes from the banks of the Mekong River. Fishermen on the banks of the Mekong have retired their boats and turned to creating land-based fish farms, following the traditions of their forefathers with a more modern twist. With the creation of small ponds, former fishermen now grow larger, healthier fish that can’t be found otherwise be found in the Mekong. These fish can also be sold for large sums of money, easing the economic situations of fishermen on the shores of both the Mekong and the SCS.
Threatened Local Beliefs and Traditions
The search for alternative employment however can also take communities away from their ancestral homes and lands. In Confucianism and Taoism, the lives and spirits of ancestors are revered, and small temples or altars are built to honor them on family lands. Being forced to leave these lands and structures behind for economic survival is a painful prospect for most families. It can create a sense of displacement not only from home and community, but from their ancestors and their sense of place in history. It feels like a forced betrayal of the family line and its traditions.
Additionally, the lore of fishing is an integral part of certain local religious beliefs: there are altars and temples dedicated to the worship of “Lord Fish” where individuals go to ask for prosperity and safety on the seas. Whale worship is fueled by legends of fishermen who were lost at sea only to be rescued by whales who guided the fishermen through rough waves to friendly vessels. Forced migration from coastal lands into more urban areas would tear practitioners from the few areas in the nation where physical locations for the worship and honoring of Lord Fish exist. Such a dislocation may result in a rupture in religious practice and spiritual identity.
One solution to this problem is sea-based tourism. The number of tourists visiting Vietnam has tripled from around 5 million in 2010 to over 15 million in 2018. With over 2,000 miles of coastline, beaches, water-based tourism— including boat tours, diving expeditions, short cruises, and marine education—is a considerable portion of the industry. Many coastal villages have already become tourist destinations, and with further engagement, sea-based tourism has the potential to provide sustainable incomes to even more coastal communities, allowing them to stay on ancestral lands where they can continue cultural practices.
The Future of Vietnam is Fish
Fishermen in Vietnam are as tied to their coastal lands as they are to their lives among the waves. Escalating violence and tension in the South China Sea is threatening to take this way of life away from them. Economically forced physical migrations carry painful social, cultural, and religious consequences. While solutions to this crisis are limited, they are not impossible. Men and women in similar situations across the country have found innovative and profitable solutions, such as fish farming and tourism. There seems to be little hope the violence in the SCS or the destruction of marine habitats will cease anytime soon. Despite this, it is evident the Vietnamese people have reacted, and will continue to react, in typical Vietnamese fashion: with resilience, innovation, and adaptability.
Elizabeth Brandeberry is the 2019 International Development Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Ms. Brandeberry focuses on the societal and economic components of post-conflict reconstruction in developing nations.
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