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Fish have rights, too

If it were only a matter of laws, we have more than enough of them to ensure the protection of our environment. What makes environmental protection so difficult, however, is that despite the plethora of international, national and even local laws, these are rarely, if ever, heeded or implemented.

Government officials themselves are among the first to violate these laws, or else choose to look the other way when the private sector brazenly ignores, if not breaks the law outright.

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Gloria Estenzo Ramos, a lawyer and environmental activist, who is now vice president of Oceana Philippines, certainly is aware of the link (or lack of it) between the state of the environment and the laws that govern it.

Ramos’ focus is the state of our seas and the impact that overfishing, overdevelopment of coastal areas and islands, and even foreign incursions in our waters have on the resources that teem underwater. The health of our seas and the creatures that live and thrive on them, says Ramos, is important, because fish and other seafood constitute a major portion of the Filipino diet.

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Fish are the major source of protein among Filipinos. But fishermen and other experts testify that not only are fish catches dwindling, the fish themselves are shrinking due to pressure on their numbers. And if the health of fish is getting affected, so, too, is the health of the Filipinos who depend on them for sustenance.

Before she joined Oceana, “the largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation,” Ramos was teaching law at the University of Cebu’s College of Law and cofounded the Philippine Earth Justice Center. As such, she led the filing of a case that sought to put a stop to an offshore drilling project in the largest marine protected area in the country, the Tanon Strait. In 2015, the Supreme Court declared the project as unconstitutional.

In other cases filed with other NGOs and partners, they were able to elicit from the Supreme Court the recognition that sea life—fish, crabs, shrimps, oysters, whales, dolphins—deserved protection in the law, compelling human predators to respect their rights as well.

Today, Oceana Philippines is working for policy and laws to protect Benham Rise within the country’s exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of the Philippines. Located in the eastern seaboard of the country (on the other side of the coast off the West Philippine Sea), Benham Rise, says Oceana, is “possibly the only place in the Philippines where coral cover hovers to 100 percent.”

During a 2016 expedition partly funded by Oceana, scientists also discovered a “vast mesophotic reef ecosystem” found up to 70 meters deep which, they said, “can serve as a potential source and refuge for shallow organisms that may be affected by climate change.”

Benham Rise is likewise a rich source of sea life, with more than 150 species of reef fishes, and the only known spawning area of the Pacific bluefin tuna, one of the most expensive fish in the world.

Clearly, laws are needed to protect such a vital, rich resource. More importantly, agencies and their officials need to rouse the needed political will to implement such laws. “Oceana recommends the formulation of science-based policy geared toward the protection of Benham Bank and the managed access to the Philippine Rise (the preferred name adopted by officials; ‘Benham’ is the name of an American explorer who discovered the ocean feature).”

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Also, a major campaign focus of Oceana are sardines, a most common fish known mainly to Filipinos as the fish found canned or bottled in oil or tomato sauce, a cheap source of food. Oceana says that sardines “play an important ecological role” and “form the lifeblood of an industry that employs tens of thousands of Filipinos while feeding millions.”

Thus, it is a matter of great concern that telltale signs of overfishing of sardines are emerging, such as the small sizes of mature fish caught, and the dwindling catch rates of commercial ring netters. If even sardines are no longer available, imagine the consequences to our children and their children!

[email protected]

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TAGS: environment, laws, overfishing
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