By Vince Cinches
There is a reason Earth is called the “Blue Planet”—two-thirds of its surface is covered with life-giving water.
More than just providing food and sustenance, the seas and oceans create more than half of the oxygen we breathe. Their rich biodiversity is a source of life-saving medicine. The seas and oceans also help regulate the global climate, and cushion the impacts of climate change. Coral reefs and mangroves protect coastal communities from tsunamis and storms.
Whatever we do has a direct impact on our oceans, and it is everyone’s responsibility to safeguard this resource from which we benefit greatly. We are reminded of it particularly at this time of the year, when we celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8. The continuing theme is “Together We Have the Power to Protect the Ocean”—quite appropriate for us in the Philippines.
The Philippines is an archipelago heavily reliant on the seas and oceans. In fact, 40 million Filipinos depend on the seas for food and livelihood. Unfortunately for us, our seas and oceans have been pillaged and our marine resources mismanaged, especially by those in the seat of government.
Our marine ecosystem is under severe threat. Only less than 1 per cent of our coral reefs is in excellent condition. Half of our seagrass meadows has been lost in the last 50 years, while 75 per cent of our mangrove cover has disappeared in the last 90 years. Plus, decades of illegal, unreported, unregulated and unsustainable fishing practices have taken their toll on our fisheries.
The oceans have become a fierce battleground for resources. Small fishers are losing the competition against commercial fishing vessels. The fish catch of one commercial vessel is equivalent to a combined catch of 65 small fishers.
In fact, back in 1986, the amount of fish taken from Philippine seas had already exceeded the allowable limits needed to sustain our fish supply. Compared to the 1960s, only 10 per cent of the fish population remains. Ten out of 13 fishing grounds in the country are overfished. And our fishers are becoming an endangered sector as well.
There is also rampant poaching of corals, sharks and sea turtles. The killing and harvesting of these marine species are environmental crimes under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (or CITES), an international agreement among governments. Its aim is to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Poaching has a detrimental effect on biodiversity regardless of territorial boundaries; it further weakens the marine ecosystem. That is why the conservation of marine creatures is crucial to maintain the ecological balance. It is imperative that all stakeholders, especially governments, protect these endangered marine species.
Reversing the decline of the marine ecosystem is not easy, but it can be done with everyone’s full cooperation and active participation.
Recently, Greenpeace, along with other fisher groups, nongovernment and civil society organisations, and the academe sent a proposed “Roadmap to Recovery for Philippine Seas” to the Presidential Palace.
The roadmap includes key recommendations on how to help save the country’s marine ecosystem from further decline. In particular, it calls on the Philippine government to: harmonise existing laws and policies which are fragmented under different agencies and departments; establish a national network of marine protected areas that is based on the connectivity of ecosystems instead of political boundaries; stop the issuance of new fishing licenses; and abolish commercial exemptions and keep municipal waters exclusive to small-scale fishers.
Philippine Environment Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Villaren accepted the copy of the Roadmap during the celebration of National Fisherfolk Day in Mendiola, Manila.
He acknowledged that marine and fisheries concerns needed to be integrated in the food security program of the government.
The clock is ticking. The battle goes on. We can only hope that President Aquino and his agencies will consider the Roadmap and heed the call to save the oceans before we run out of marine resources and lose our fishers.
(Vince Cinches is the oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines. He is pushing the “Roadmap to Recovery” to save the Philippine seas)