Many key biodiversity areas in the Philippines remain unprotected, and measures that seek to protect these, including natural resources in the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS), are imperative.
This was stressed by Dr. Ma. Carmen Ablan-Lagman, a professor at the Department of Biology, De La Salle University, Manila, who spoke about the richness of the biological diversity in the disputed territory during a webinar organized by Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies on Monday.
“Finding new species new to science is not new to the Philippines. We are the center of the center marine biodiversity. In 2015, the California Academy of Sciences launched an expedition through which they discovered over 100 new species,” she noted.
“Biodiversity creates the conditions for human existence and the ability to survive it provides the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the shelter [we need],” she said.
However, Ablan-Lagman said disruptive fishing practices and even coastal development, aggravated by climate change impacts, are putting pressure on biodiversity.
As far as fishery resources are concerned, she said the Bajo Masinloc and the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the WPS provide hope.
For the fish, habitats like mangroves, seagrass, and corals are important for them to survive, she added.
Ablan-Lagman said that in 2020, fisheries yield in Bajo Masinloc is a lot higher than the national average, and higher in terms of yield compared to any other areas in the world.
Other studies, she noted, also have similar results, highlighting the productivity of the WPS in terms of fishery production.
According to Ablan-Lagman, House Bill 6373, or the KIG Scarborough Shoal Marine Protected Area Bill, and Senate Bill 1697, or an Act declaring the three nautical miles surrounding the KIG Group and the Scarborough Shoal in the WPS as a Marine Protected Area under Republic Act 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System of 1992 as amended by Republic Act 11038 or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 2019 are a welcome initiative, given that biodiversity in these areas means food, water and even shelter that needs to be protected and harnessed.
“Looking at how the Philippines requires protection, these are some of the bills that we actually needed,” she said.
However, Lagman-Ablan said the aspect of area protection should be extensively discussed because there are other interests other than just protection, although she highlighted that protection gives people food, water, and shelter, in general.
She noted that China, for one, has unilaterally declared a ban on fishing in the disputed areas, which is pushing Filipino fishermen away from their traditional fishing grounds. Other claimant countries, she noted, also have fishing policies that may be in conflict with that of other claimants to territories being disputed in fish-rich areas.
What is needed, Ablan-Lagman emphasized is for the Philippines to harmonize its environmental and fisheries policies with that of other countries that have a stake in the territory.
Moving forward, she said there’s a need for a spatially explicit management plan bringing together biodiversity protection and multiple interests to be shared openly with stakeholders.
More importantly, as the WPS is being disputed by various claims, she said practices of the country’s neighbors have to be studied and if appropriate, initiate harmonization without prejudice to claims to reduce causes of conflict.
According to Ablan-Lagman, there’s a need to consider long-term discussions and establish binding agreements on the use of natural resources in the area.
She added there is also a need to engage the WPS stakeholders in resource monitoring and cooperation for monitoring status and communication information on the resources, as well as the development of a community of researchers that will last generations.
Image credits: AP/Rolex Dela Peña