Who own the seas?
Last December I was sitting on a sea wall in San Juan, La Union, with one of my daughters when she suddenly shot the question: “Who owns the sea?”
My answer was automatic: No one.
“But I heard on the news China says it owns the sea.”
That jolted me, because my daughter is all of 9 years old. I had to go into an explanation about the planet having many seas, and that countries claim seas as part of their territory, and that disputes come about with these territorial claims because the seas are so rich in resources.
Our conversation eventually went into private ownership of properties in front of the ocean. I explained that even if people buy such properties, they cannot claim ownership of the beach.
Last Holy Week, I was there again in La Union with my kids, and the beaches were swarming with people. Black Saturday was the peak, with families — no, clans — coming in and pitching tents for picnics on the beach, on the sea wall, on sidewalks.
I told my 9-year-old and her sisters: “See? No one owns the seas, or the beaches.” But I just had to add: “And that can be a problem, too.”
The next day, Easter Sunday, I took an early morning stroll with the three of them and our dog. In sharp contrast to the previous day, the beach was practically abandoned, but the crowds from the previous day left loads of garbage.
To entice the kids to stroll with me, I said we would look for marine life on the beach, and we would also pick up the garbage. That cleanup proved to be a science class, as the kids learned to pick up only the nonbiodegradables — plastics and Styrofoam at the top of the list.
I had to explain how plastics are now considered a major pollutant of the oceans, and how this affects marine life. The bags, drinking straws, spoons and forks and soft drink containers quickly filled up our garbage sack, but the kids soon learned about a less known plastic, tiny but terrible: cellulose acetate used to make cigarette filters.
It is amazing how many people go to the beach to enjoy nature, then smoke and stub out the cigarettes right there in the sand. I’ll chalk it up to not knowing any better about the plastic in the filter, meant to reduce the cigarette polluting the smoker’s lungs but ending up polluting the beaches and the seas.
I was amazed at how much Styrofoam there was, mainly as food containers. But this beach cleanup also made me realize another major source for the Styrofoam waste: the cheaper floating boards used for kids and people who can’t swim. The boards break easily, and people just leave them on the beach.
After about half an hour, an older daughter, aged 12, shouted out in exasperation: “Doesn’t anyone care?”
Later that day, we had lunch at a more popular beach area in Urbiztondo, which was full of people but had a garbage-free beach. There were signs everywhere that said “No Smoking, No Eating, No Drinking, No Littering,” along with trash receptacles. The tourists were more upper class here.
I felt torn, all the more when the 12-year-old daughter said she didn’t want to go back to the other beach, which she said was “dirty.” Last year, when we were in Mariveles, Bataan, the kids were in despair, and when they returned from a drive around the public beaches, they said all were filled with garbage, including the ocean. There was only one beach that was clean, and it was private.
People deserve more public beaches, where they don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for expensive food and accommodations. But people also need to learn to take responsibility for the beaches. The upper classes are not necessarily more responsible; they stay in more expensive places that hire people to keep the places clean.
I worry that San Juan, discovered for its surf only a few years ago, might deteriorate faster than Boracay. People from all socioeconomic classes are cashing in, but as resources dwindle, it’ll be the poor who will lose out first.
One La Union native told me there are people who just buy land and wait for prices to move up, then sell when they see overtourism. There will always be new places to invest in.
It’s important to get the young to think about these issues: It’s their beaches, their seas, their world that we’re squandering away.
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