Protect our resources | Inquirer Opinion
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Protect our resources

Protecting our people means protecting our natural resources. We were grimly reminded of this last week, when Zambales fisherfolk revealed that their fish catch from the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has been dwindling.

“Many of my fellow fishermen have been complaining about returning home almost empty-handed after venturing out to sea,” one fisherman told the Inquirer.

His observation was echoed by the Homonhon Environmental Rescue Organization, which noted that our marine resources in the region are being depleted by foreign vessels’ overfishing. The organization cited a report by the National Task Force for West Philippine Sea, stating that as much as 240,000 kilos of fish are illegally taken from the WPS every single day by Chinese fishing vessels. Our country could be facing a fish shortage because of this, the group said.

The dispute over these waters has sparked endless discussions on territory and sovereignty. But every now and then, we are reminded that this is an environmental issue, too. The fishers’ lament highlights that this environmental facet is critical, as it directly impacts communities whose livelihoods and food security depend on aquatic resources. Fish shortage could also ripple in the form of higher fish prices elsewhere.

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The issue is also urgent: Many Filipinos are steadily losing their income and food source right this very moment. And their situation could only get worse the longer our marine resources are left without protection, allowing their exploitation by unchecked foreign actors.

This isn’t the first time we’re hearing of this, either. The years-long standoff over these contested waters has always brought with it the dangers of marine overexploitation.

Scientists even tried to sound the alarm in 2016 in a National Geographic report headlined “One of the World’s Biggest Fisheries Is on the Verge of Collapse.” It pinpointed overfishing as a serious threat to the rich marine ecosystem in the region. According to the report, certain parts of the disputed waters had less than one-tenth of the fish stocks they had six decades ago.

That report is nearly five years old now, and our fishing communities are clearly suffering the outcomes. Yet our marine resources there remain unprotected and vulnerable.

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This is a wonder because many other places in the Philippines are benefiting from environmental preservation efforts. We have hundreds of marine protected areas (MPAs) all over the country, but key parts of the WPS—such as the Spratly Islands—have yet to be added to the list.

In a marine protected area, human activity is restricted to allow aquatic biodiversity to flourish and help make fisheries sustainable. Just this month, I chanced upon positive updates about corals and fish diversity gradually being restored with the aid of artificial coral gardens in an MPA in Misamis Oriental. Of course, not all MPAs are a success story. Implementation of such programs is still a challenge, and it would be much more complex in the WPS.

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Advocates note that an MPA must be an international cooperation among countries bordering the region, like an international “peace park,” as worded by Prof. John McManus, one of the leading marine ecologists studying the issue.

But while scientists from various nations (such as Vietnam) support this idea, their consensus doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Justice Antonio Carpio noted in his WPS lecture, “Whenever these marine biologists meet, they have an agreement. Whenever diplomats meet, they disagree.”

As of 2019, our National Security Council was “looking into the possibility” of declaring MPAs in parts of the WPS, and also hinted at inviting other countries for “joint marine protected areas.” It’s unclear where this idea has gone since.

What’s clear right now is that ecological preservation is getting relegated to the backseat. But the sea cannot wait—it needs to start healing now. Without urgent protection from domestic or international forces, we will lose what life is left in these waters—and our fisherfolk’s living along with it.

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TAGS: Hyacinth Tagupa, MPA, Resources, West Philippine Sea

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