House panel OKs bill designating parts of Kalayaan Island as MPA

File photo: The Philippine-claimed Kalayaan (Thitu) Island on the Spratlys chain of islands is shown off the West Philippine Sea.

THE House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources approved on Wednesday a bill designating certain areas in the Kalayaan Islands Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as marine protected areas (MPA).

House Bill 6373, authored by Palawan Rep. Edward Hagedorn and sponsored by CIBAC Party-List Representative Bro. Eddie C. Villanueva, aims to declare as MPA the area measuring around 10 square kilometers surrounding the islands of KIG and Scarborough Shoal in order to protect the country’s marine resources in the area.

According to the bill, as per local studies, the proposed MPA provides safe and protected habitat space for young marine organisms to grow.

In a news statement, Villanueva said the bill is only for the protection of the marine environment – particularly in the Kalayaan Islands – which is situated within the country’s exclusive economic zones, and has nothing to do about territorial disputes in the WPS.

Villanueva said that a study by the UP-Marine Science Institute in 2019 found out that coral reefs in Kalayaan Islands – particularly in the Pag-asa Island, Panata Island, and Sabina Shoal – were already damaged apparently by illegal activities such as blast fishing.

The bill is thus an operationalization of proposals from local marine experts to declare the KIG as MPA in order to protect the coral reefs therein.

A 2014 study by the Asian Development Bank showed that the Kalayaan Islands comprise 30 percent of the country’s total coral reefs and serve as breeding ground of fishes and marine species in the country.

“Fishes and marine life breed in the coral reefs of Kalayaan Islands and the eggs and fingerlings are carried by sea currents to other parts of the country’s seascapes where they thrive, grow, and are eventually caught by fishermen. Coral reefs are the breeding ground or the ‘nursery’ of marine life. If reefs are destroyed, we nip marine life at its bud. Thus, to allow the destruction of the coral reefs in Kalayaan Islands will adversely impact fish production in the country and in several adjacent countries,” said the CIBAC lawmaker.

The bill will also prohibit and penalize certain acts and activities within the waters of the 3-nautical mile area to guarantee protection of marine habitat. Villanueva clarified, however, that it would still allow traditional fishing as it is considered generally harmless to the marine ecosystem.

The bill will also create a Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal Protected Area Management Office (KIGSS-PAMO) and a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee to ensure effective implementation of the provisions of the proposed measure.

“We acknowledge that there are tensions relating to territory claims in the West Philippine Sea. However, we cannot afford not to act because the habitat of marine life in our waters, which benefit not only the Philippines but also the adjacent countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, are being destroyed. We need to protect the biological productivity of our Kalayaan Islands in order to sustain our ever-increasing demand for marine produce,” said Villanueva, who also chairs the House Committee on Sustainable Development Goals.

Representatives from different government agencies including the Department of National Defense (DND) expressed full support for the passage House Bill 6373.

“At the end of the day, the ultimate owner of the West Philippine Sea is not any human being, government or country. It all belongs to God because the Bible says the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. We are just mere stewards who are entrusted with its care so we should do our part to conserve and nourish its majesty and abundance,” said Villanueva.

Image credits: AP/Bullit Marquez


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