Many people have wondered what happens to sewage from boat bathrooms. Unfortunately, reports state that for the 200+ fishing vessels in the South China Sea, the human waste is dumped right into the sea, severely damaging the coral reefs nearby. A U.S. satellite picked up images of the refuse in the sea from space. The satellite imagery analysis firm Simularity reported this finding, including a study into the effects of sewage on the environment.
“The sewage from the anchored ships in the Spratlys is damaging the reefs, and we can see this from space,” said Simularity founder and CEO Liz Derr. “The hundreds of ships that are anchored there are dumping raw sewage, every day onto the reefs they are occupying.” She adds, “when the ships don’t move, the poop piles up.”
Chinese Ships Dump Human Waste into the South China Sea
Additionally, these satellite images show a contrast in algae growth from May 14, 2016, to June 17, 2021. During that time, about 236 Chinese ships remained in the waters. According to Peter Koning, vice president of sales at Simularity, it’s not normal for ships to stay motionless like that for such a long period of time.
Keep in mind that this sea is disputed territory. China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are among the countries that claim it. However, the International Court of Justice rejected China’s claims in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Phillippines are working on verifying Simularity’s report. According to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, “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.” 
“China treating us as its toilet is a clear violation of both international and local environmental laws,” added Philippines Senator Grace Poe in a statement. 
“A Big Joke”
However, China has dismissed the Simularity study as a “big joke,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. He stated that the company was “fabricating facts, violating professional ethics and spreading rumors about China.” He added that China is willing to work with the nations around the South China Sea to improve peace and stability in that area.
This skepticism is based on one of the images used in the report. It depicts a fishing boat discharging human waste into the water, but reportedly, that photo is from several years ago over the Great Barrier Reef near Australia. Simularity defended itself saying they did not claim the photo is from the South China Sea; they included it for illustrative reasons.
“The report is not fake,” Simularity tweeted. “We encourage verification of our findings by the Philippine government, and stand by our research methods, sources, and findings.” 
Why is Sewage So Bad for the Reefs?
Sewage, especially in such large amounts, causes an increase in phytoplankton, which leads to less oxygen in the water. And without enough oxygen, coral reefs, which take about 10,000 years to form, die. “These bacteria consume oxygen that would normally be available to the fish, creating a ‘dead zone,’” Simularity said in a report.
However, coral reefs aren’t the only ones at stake. Fish are also in danger from human waste, and they are a vital food source for the locals. This could jeopardize the millions of people who rely on fishing for food and income. Overfishing in the area only worsens the issue.
“Even small increases in nutrients can tip the balance towards algae,” Derr said. “When the ships don’t move, the poop piles up. 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 concluded.
Viruses From Dumping Human Waste
Additionally, human waste could cause illnesses in people. Virus particles released from sewage could survive in clams and oysters. Plus they could reside for a long period of time in the sea environment while remaining infectious. And the light cooking of clams and oysters often cannot kill the virus, spreading it to whoever eats it. This norovirus, also known as the stomach flu, could cause symptoms like stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and occasionally fever. There are millions of cases of it each year in the United States, causing thousands of hospitalizations and hundreds of deaths. This is why boats should dispose of human waste in marina stations, not in the sea. 
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- “Philippines to probe report of Chinese sewage-dumping at sea.” CNN. July 14, 2021
- “Chinese ships have dumped so much poop in the South China Sea, you can see it from space: report.” Insider. Vanessa Gu. July 14, 2021
- “China Dismisses Claims They Are Dumping Human Waste in the Sea As ‘Big Joke’.” Newsweek. John Feng. July 15, 2021
- “Don’t Poo in the Blue.” USA NIFA.