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Protecting Philippine Seas Through Community Efforts

Fisherfolks in Palawan waters. Photo by Lorela U. Sandoval

The Philippines is considered to be a center of marine biodiversity in the world and boasts a treasure of rich marine resources just beyond its 36,289 kilometers coastline and its 2.2 million square kilometers of territorial waters which include its Exclusive Economic Zone. But such a large repository of marine resources is not safe from being overused or abused by destructive human practices, which is why efforts to effectively protect our rich waters from destruction are being extended in small communities.

Anna Oposa, co-founder and “Chief Mermaid” of Save Philippine Seas, a movement that advocates the protection of Philippine marine resources with the use of social media and lobbying, emphasized that the Philippines is a center of biodiversity and that there is a lot at stake.

In an interview with SecurityMatters, she disclosed that the damage caused by destructive fishing will result to loss of income in the tourism industry since our rich marine life caters to divers and snorkelers, loss in seafood production that will present a threat to food security, and bring about an imbalance in the marine ecosystem—all of which will, consequently, affect the economy of the country.

Oposa also explained the damage that blast fishing alone does to the environment. According to her, the first consequence of this ill practice is destruction of the reefs, which are actually living creatures and not rocks, and serve as home for fishes. The importance of reefs stems from the fact that much of the protein intake of Filipinos comes from seafood. Second, blast fishing poses a threat to humans as it may cause damage to hearing and bring about other injuries like lost of limbs and even death.

Apart from blast fishing, she cited other fishing practices that are both destructive and dangerous, namely cyanide fishing, muro-ami, pa-aling, compressor diving, and trawling.

If our marine environment and resources are, however, protected, Oposa assured there would be “better tourism because our reefs are pristine; food security; stronger economy. Everyone benefits, from the LGUs [local government units] to poor communities.”

Oposa said that protecting the seas from blast and other destructive means of fishing can be done “through enforcement measures and educating the fishing community of the consequences.”

Protection by Faith

An unusual event happened last September 7 and 8 beneath the waters off the coast of Bien Unido town in the northern part of Bohol. The first underwater pilgrimage was held in an underwater grotto located in Danajon Bank. The pilgrimage organized by Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCEF), seeks to promote the protection of the reef. Around 30 divers joined this pilgrimage.

Danajon Bank is a large double-barrier reef, a rare type of coral structure that took thousands of years to form and is one of the only six such coral formations in the world. The reef can be found on the waters beyond the shores of Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, and Southern Leyte, and jurisdiction over its waters are spread throughout 17 municipalities. Bien Unido, situated in the northern shore of Bohol, has access and jurisdiction over parts of the bank.

In 2010, two 14-foot statues were put underwater to make an underwater grotto: one of the Virgin Mary and the other a Santo Niño. Such effort by the local government of Bien Unido, its people, and volunteer groups greatly reduced blast fishing, which has been widespread in the town’s waters. The Bohol Standard reported that, prior to the placement of religious images underwater, around 20 blasts can be heard in the waters of Danajon Bank. But now the town benefits from catering to divers and its economy is augmented by seaweed farming and non-destructive fishing.

Angelo Ahumada, a Catholic youth minister and ex-seminarian, explained to SecurityMatters that religious images are given great respect by Catholic Filipinos because these are instrumental in the evangelization of the archipelago. He said, “Religious images try to communicate to the people’s conscience by saying to protect the nature. These images will also signify that the place is holy, or in another term, a place that deserves greater respect.”

Protection by Laws and Alternative Livelihood

Kiram Savada of Ace And Associates Risk Management Inc. defined marine protection as protecting the marine environment against anyone who would abuse its resources. He added that “we have laws but the problem lies not in laws but with their implementation.”

The Philippine National Police Maritime Group patrols municipal waters. The Philippine Navy patrols all territorial waters from the shoreline and beyond. The Philippine Coast Guard ensures safety and life at sea and is involved in anti-smuggling operations and also deputized in enforcing marine protection laws. But Savada explained that law enforcement units are not enough to cover the entire waters of the country.

“The first time someone is caught illegally fishing, a fine of 500 pesos is given. Surprisingly, the frequent question of those caught is: how much is the second offense?” He stated that even penalties are not enough to safeguard marine resources. “Fines are not commensurate to the damage done to corals as it can take 50 to hundreds of years to recover.”

Savada pointed out that barangays are the ones primarily responsible for their jurisdiction. Barangays are the direct political entity that can ensure marine protection laws are enforced. Specific local laws are effective as barangay ordinances defer violators.

“The most effective way to protect an area is to declare it a Marine Protected Area (MPA),” he suggested. But he warned that such measures should be augmented with alternative livelihood because declaring an MPA will exclude an area from direct fishing, and one cannot deprive the community of its livelihood.

An alternative would be the creation of payaws or fish cages that are anchored and floating above water. It attracts adult fishes that can be caught easily with hook and line. So with such practice, fish can be caught without posing threat to the seabed. Payaws can be created and used by communities.

Savada noted that such technology is simple and resources to construct it are very accessible to communities. Also, it has been found that fishermen were able to catch even more in payaws compared in open water.

Protection by Awareness and Community Involvement

Meanwhile, The Coral Project, an environmental initiative that goes to communities, provides a holistic package in protecting the community’s marine resources. The word ‘Coral’ stands for Coral Restoration Awareness and Livelihood.

Gene Rose Tecson of The Coral Project, given the large challenge of protecting the seas, posed this question, “How do we protect with lack of resources?” So she, along with other members of the project, relies on the community’s power and starts by raising awareness in the community of their marine environment.

She gladly shared their community success stories to SecurityMatters.

Their team first takes underwater pictures and videos of a community’s marine environment and then shows these visuals to every person door to door and in assemblies. Tecson said, “How can you protect something you don’t know? Showing the marine resources they have gives a sense of pride for their place.”

And their awareness efforts surely got the commitment and resolve of the community in protecting their marine environment from which they get their livelihood from.

In their projects of conducting awareness and creation of community payaws, they involve everyone in the community and not only the local officials. Tecson said that they aim to give the people a sense of pride and ownership for their efforts.

Everyone is Involved

Despite the threats, Savada assured that our marine environment can be protected as long as communities are “involved, educated, and serious in protecting what they have in their own community and that everyone is willing to cooperate.”

Meanwhile, Oposa also said, “The Philippines is the center of biodiversity. Right now, it’s also the center of adversity. If we don’t love this country and take care of it, who will? Do your part in caring for the environment by turning off your lights/faucets when not in use, bringing reusable bags when you shop, carpooling when you can, and teaching younger people about what you learn.” She added that, “protecting the environment is everybody’s business.”

Our country may be the richest when it comes to marine resources, but that does not mean these resources will not be exhausted. Such resources require protection and great respect to ensure that we and the future generations can continuously reap the rewards and blessings from our seas. Besides, if we keep our seas alive, we also insure our future and our lives.