A Marine Park in the West Philippine Sea; An Ecological Approach to Maritime issuesCatch of the Week
Amid a tumultuous legal and diplomatic atmosphere in Southeast Asia over the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea, experts from the scientific community have proposed the establishment of a marine park. In setting up a marine protected area, our region could halt the devastating environmental degradation and help claimant-States sustainably benefit from the fishery resources in the contested waters.
The long-standing disputes between six countries bordering the body of water grew in urgency when China took aggressive steps to enforce its infamous and illegal nine-dash line, which covers more than 80% of the sea. Provocative Chinese actuations to enforce their claim and defend Chinese fishermen’s illegal activities, notably at Scarborough Shoal, forced the Philippine government in 2013 to invoke the provisions of UNCLOS and initiate a case against China before a neutral court of arbitration.
The effects of China’s actions have not only been diplomatic or military in nature. One cause of action in filing the case was the extensive environmental damage caused by Chinese government agents burying reefs under concrete to build “artificial islands” and by Chinese fishermen using highly destructive methods. These steps threaten the food and livelihood sources of all coastal nations. Thankfully, the Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on these points.
At present, our country is exploring ways by which it can work together with fellow claimants to improve relations. As it does so, our leaders should consider and support practical measures that can simultaneously address the environmental damage and build greater trust among all stakeholders in the region.
Creating a Marine Park or a Marine Protected Area
A marine protected area (MPA) is defined by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as an area of the oceans or other bodies of water that are protected for conservation purposes. This concept is well-established under Philippine laws; today, MPAs are managed under the framework of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act.
As defined by NOAA, the main objective of establishing an MPA is to protect biodiversity and the integrity of the marine ecosystem in the area. The West Philippine Sea is part of the Coral Triangle Region, the global center for marine biodiversity. If the habitat, spawning, and feeding grounds of these megadiverse species are severely disrupted, humanity risks losing part of its heritage, a wealth of scientific discoveries, and, most urgently, an important source of food.
In the case of the island-building activities in the West Philippine Sea, creating a marine park or sanctuary can allow what is left of the coral reefs and the marine species to slowly recuperate and, for the endangered species there, have a fighting chance against extinction.
Establishing an MPA not only works toward ecological preservation but, more importantly, ensures that people can sustainably benefit from the fish and other aquatic resources in the area. The South China Sea is notable for being the “nursery” of fisheries, where fish that feed the world reproduce. By establishing a marine-protected area over this nursery, the overall stocks of fish beyond the MPA’s limits will also increase.
The suggestion for the establishment of an MPA would recognize the resource-rich nature of the disputed areas and consequently better safeguard the survival and livelihood needs of people from coastal communities for these resources.
(Read the full version of Lysander Castillo’s OpEd column in BusinessWorld Online.)