China Dismisses Claims They Are Dumping Human Waste in the Sea As 'Big Joke'

China has dismissed recent research into catastrophic environmental damage caused by hundreds of Chinese fishing boats dumping sewage and wastewater into the South China Sea.

A July 12 report by the U.S. satellite imagery analysis firm Simularity included a study into the effects of excess human waste caused by Chinese ships anchored around the contested Spratly Islands over five years.

At an event hosted by the Philippine-based Stratbase ADR Institute think tank on Monday, Simularity CEO Liz Derr said the "excess nutrients" in the water were leading to algal blooms that threatened the reef habitat as well as the surrounding fisheries, potentially jeopardizing millions of people who rely on local fish populations inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian described the Simularity study as a "big joke" during a regular press conference in Beijing on Thursday.

The company was "fabricating facts, violating professional ethics and spreading rumors about China," said Zhao, adding that Beijing "condemned" the research report.

China is prepared to work with the South China Sea littoral nations to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the region, he said.

The Simularity report relates directly to Manila's economic interests in its expansion EEZ, which also covers what the government calls the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Since its publication, however, the Philippines' own officials have cast doubt on its findings.

Their skepticism appears to be the result of confusion surrounding an image used in the paper. The photograph depicts a fishing boat dumping wastewater into the ocean, but it was apparently captured in Australia's Great Barrier Reef several years ago.

Simularity later said the picture was for illustrative purposes, and that it did not claim it was taken in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday's the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it would look into the allegations in the research. The Department of Defense said it would also investigate, but Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters he thought the report was "not true."

"We have taken note of the news circulating online about the alleged dumping of waste in the South China Sea. Be that as it may, I have directed the Western Command who has jurisdiction over the WPS to verify and investigate," Lorenzana said in a statement on the department's website.

"However, the photo of a ship seen dumping waste accompanying the report was found to have been taken in the Australian Great Barrier Reef in 2014. Therefore, this intent to mislead has cast great doubt on the accurateness of the Simularity report," he added.

But the official stressed his office was still waiting for verification of the findings.

"While we are confirming and verifying these wastes being dumped in the WPS, we consider such irresponsible acts, if true, to be gravely detrimental to the marine ecology in the area," he said. "Despite overlapping claims and interests by states in the South China Sea, all nations must be responsible stewards of the environment."

Similar doubts were raised by Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who tweeted the report was "fake" and briefly sparred with Simularity's account on Twitter.

"The report is not fake," Simularity tweeted on Wednesday. "We encourage verification of our findings by the Philippine government, and stand by our research methods, sources, and findings."

In a further clarification on its website, the U.S.-based software and AI company said the confusion was caused when a Manila news agency misidentified the Great Barrier Reef photograph as part of its research into the South China Sea.

"We did not use this image in our research. Ships dumping sewage is a common practice. We used it in our report to provide a context for what we were able to view from space," a statement said.

"We never claimed it was a picture of a Chinese ship in the Spratlys. We have communicated with the agency, who reached out to us, and have urged them to print a retraction, and include our original image credit, and list of sources," it added.

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Point of No Return

Simularity's analysis of satellite imagery found some 236 Chinese fishing boats anchored in Unions Banks on June 17. The atoll is 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine coast and falls within its EEZ.

During Monday's think tank forum, Simularity founder Derr said the dumping of human waste and sewage into the reef waters was leading to an increase in Chlorophyll-a.

The report explains: "In water, Chlorophyll-a concentration is a measure of phytoplankton. Excess phytoplankton that cannot be consumed by the reef inhabitants dies off and sinks to the sea floor, where it is consumed by bacteria. These bacteria consume oxygen that would normally be available to the fish, creating a 'dead zone.'"

"On reefs, Chlorophyll-a concentration is a measure of the amount of plant material, such as 'fleshy algae' on the reef. Excess nutrients can speed the growth of 'fleshy algae' that can overtake the coral and destroy the reef habitat," it noted.

"Even small increases in nutrients can tip the balance towards algae," Derr told the panel, saying the effect was being exacerbated by overfishing.

"When the ships don't move, the poop piles up," she added. "The hundreds of ships that are anchored in the Spratlys are dumping raw sewage onto the reefs they are occupying."

"This is a catastrophe of epic proportions and we are close to the point of no return," Derr warned, concluding: "This needs to stop immediately. China, stop s***ting on the Spratlys."