Editorial

Rich but at risk

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This creature has a humble moniker but it’s part of the Philippines’ wondrous wealth in marine life. It’s called the “bubble shark” (because it can puff up to twice its size when threatened), and it’s a brand-new species discovered only last year in the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor (VIPMC).

“It’s a wonderful sign,” said Lynette Laroya of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau. “It’s a good indication that we have good diversity, and … that perhaps there are a lot of species that have not been discovered out there.”

The VIPMC, which runs between Batangas and Mindoro, stretches over more than a million hectares. The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, mounted by scientists from both the University of the Philippines and the California Academy of Sciences, found a treasure trove of marine life there that had not been documented before, including over a hundred possibly new species. “We still keep finding new things,” an American researcher said.

Indeed, the Philippines is one of only 17 countries classified as “mega-diverse,” hosting 70-80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.

But this fabulous natural wealth is also one of the world’s most endangered, with all sorts of mishaps and predators coming together to inflict the most damage. Whether on land (deforestation brought about by illegal logging, resulting in flooding and extinction of certain animals) or at sea (damage to our coral reefs, overfishing, etc.), the destruction continues.

Even our most high-profile natural treasures are being damaged. In January, a US Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian, inexplicably ran aground in Tubbataha Reef, destroying precious living corals.

The US government eventually decided to break up the Guardian and extricate it from the protected area section by section, with the last finally removed in March.

Its minesweeper being in clear violation of Republic Act 10067 (the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act), the US government was fined by the Philippines $1.4 million (P58 million) for damage to 2,300 square meters of reef. But that paltry amount is simply not commensurate to the possible permanent damage to the protected area, as well as the long-term negative impact on the marine life. It may be that the corals will not grow back at all, according to World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan.

Barely had the last piece of the Guardian been lifted off than a Chinese vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reef. An inspection of the boat by Philippine Coast Guard officers resulted in the discovery of 400 boxes of frozen pangolins—another instance of Chinese “fishermen” caught in the illegal trade in wildlife.

And then just last week, a video shot by Japanese diver Satoshi Toyoda spread on YouTube showing a literal yellow submarine operated by an underwater tour company smashing into a coral reef off Lapu-Lapu City. Mayor Paz Radaza suspended the business permit of Cebu Yellow Submarine Undersea Tour Corp., pointing out that the sub had damaged the corals and could destroy the marine habitat within the city’s waters.

Radaza also issued the company a cease-and-desist order and the Maritime Industry Authority called for an inquiry. The company has denied hitting the coral wall, but city divers found recent damage on the corals believed to have been caused by the sub.

Vigilance, along with stringent implementation of our laws, is ever the key in the prevention of crimes against the natural environment.

It’s an old story—of foreign fishermen poaching in our seas and making off with endangered sea creatures, of local and foreign resort owners reshaping the natural land and seascape to fit their (profit-oriented) needs, of predators and wrongdoers blithely getting away.

Greed and complacency are threatening our precious biodiversity.

In a report issued last October, the DENR said: “Many scientists have expressed the concern that despite the significant gains in protected areas management, the Philippines is still losing its remaining forest and coastal ecosystems at an alarming rate. In other words, the country is either not effective in conserving its resources, or not fast enough in protecting ecosystems at risk.”

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