Scientists warn of ecological damage in West Philippine Sea due to China’s militarization

China’s militarization in the disputed South China Sea, known locally as the West Philippine Sea, parts of the South China Sea that are included in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, is dealing a hard blow to 1.8 million Filipinos living at coastal areas, as marine scientists have forewarned for years the relentless activities were having on the environment, including massive clamshell harvesting, illegal and overfishing, and underwater oil and gas exploration.

Watch the video here.

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Attorney Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president, Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, said the impact on the marine environment and livelihood is felt mostly by the municipal fishing sector since it is dependent on the West Philippine Sea’s fisheries to survive. China has made it more difficult for local fisherfolks in recent years to access fishing areas as tensions continues to rise.

Attorney Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president, Oceana. Photo credit: Oceana

The West Philippine Sea stretches from the west coast of Luzon, Mindoro, and Palawan towards the Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) and the Kalayaan Island Group. The latter alone accounts for 30 percent of the total coral reef area in the country (3,257.70 km2). With about 500 species of coral reef fish and important food fishes, it contributes to about 20 percent of the country’s annual commercial fisheries production. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently working with the Office of the Solicitor General on preparing an environmental damage case against China due to the damage caused on coral reefs. 

“We need to make sure that our evidence that we will be attaching to the complaint is solid. But we are confident that in a few weeks, we will finish our complaint and the evidence attachments. Hopefully, with the help of the Office of the Solicitor General, we will be able to file an environmental case against China,” said DOJ spokesperson Mico Clavano in an interview on the Bagong Pilipinas Ngayon TV show on May 30.

In May, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) discovered crushed corals in Pag-asa (Thitu) Island and Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, which could indicate attempts of either reclamation or building new islands located at the exclusive economic zone.

Senator Risa Hontiveros has renewed calls for China to pay environmental damages. Last year, the senator filed Proposed Senate Resolution No. 804 to seek payment.

“We should seek payment for damages caused by China in the West Philippine Sea. We will get billions if China is forced to pay. They are already robbing our fishermen of their jobs, they are even destroying our natural resources. If China can pay off all its debts to the Philippines, it will definitely help in the economic crisis we are facing,” Hontiveros said in a press release.

Ramos said the senator’s call to pay for environmental damage highlighted how important environmental stewardship and sustainable development is in the region.

“It seeks to address the long-term impacts of militarization and overfishing on marine ecosystems and coastal communities while advocating for accountability and responsible behavior on an international scale. It raises international pressure and awareness and can be a catalyst for cooperation for environmental protection in the area. The funds when or if claimed by the Philippines can help secure better security for the areas under the Philippines and can also be used for rehabilitation of the damaged coral reefs,” Ramos added.

Declaring more Marine Protected Areas 

Oceana continues to raise awareness on a global scale on the importance of the West Philippine Sea and China’s ongoing destruction in the area. She said awareness can help gain more public support for conservation efforts and policy changes, and help to mobilize stakeholders and empower local communities.

Last year, Senator Raffy Tulfo filed the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal Marine Protected Area Act of 2022 (Senate Bill No. 1697) declaring the three nautical miles surrounding the Scarborough Shoal and Kalayaan Island Group as a Marine Protected Area to serve as living laboratories for scientific research; support more environmental education; and become ecotourism sites for diving and wildlife watching.

“The West Philippine Sea particularly the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal are our natural heritage. Declaring parts of (it) as Marine Protected Areas is a proactive step toward conserving marine biodiversity, supporting sustainable fisheries, and promoting the long-term health and resilience of these marine ecosystems to climate change,” said Ramos.

“Protecting the West Philippine Sea through Marine Protected Areas demonstrates a commitment to international conservation goals and responsible stewardship of shared marine resources. It sets a precedent for collaboration among countries to address global challenges like overfishing and habitat degradation. Establishing Marine Protected Areas in the West Philippine Sea benefits not only Filipinos but also the entire world.”

Ecosystem damage and economic losses

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI)’s latest study, Deep Blue Scars: Environmental Threats to the South China Sea, revealed that China’s dredging and landfill operations caused significant coral reef damage in the Philippines for over a decade.

The West Philippine Sea has over 100 reef features, encompassing 37,200 km2 – around five percent of the world’s total reef cover. Currently, China has occupied twenty-seven of the reefs, roughly 4,648 acres, and has destroyed most of them due to continuous dredging and landfills. 

Because of massive giant clam harvesting, approximately 16,535 acres of coral reefs were damaged. The coral reefs shrunk by 16 percent in the last 10 years.

“First, the harvesting of giant clams needs to be stopped. By adopting a multi-faceted approach that combines legal measures, community engagement, scientific research, and international cooperation, efforts can be made to address the damage caused by giant clam harvesting in the West Philippine Sea. The University of the Philippines – Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) has successfully restocked giant clams in the country and this can be done in the West Philippine Sea,” Ramos explained.

In 2019, UP-MSI also estimated that the country is losing about P33.1 billion (US$681.4 million) annually due to reef ecosystem damage in the disputed area.

Sea Around Us’ Annual Fish Catch data in the West Philippine Sea showed fish stock increased in 2010 by 732,110 tons but has been declining since then. Combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing will further greatly reduce the negative impacts on the ocean. Oceana strongly advocates in protecting marine habitats and supporting the right of the artisanal fisherfolk to have preferential access to their fishing grounds.

“We can help mobilize stakeholders and empower local communities, especially the small fishers. By raising awareness at a global scale, we can promote international cooperation and collaboration,” shared Ramos.

“One of Oceana’s campaigns in the Philippines is battling IUU fishing. Oceana through technology monitors fishing activities in the West Philippine Sea.  I presented at the 10th International Conference on Fisheries and Aquaculture last 2023 ‘Using Technology to Track Apparent Illegal Fishing in the Philippines’ and showed that technology like AIS, VIIRS, and VMS to monitor IUU fishing activities in the West Philippine Sea plus implementing policies need to be implemented to deter IUU fishing.”

Oceana said they will continue to push for sustainable management of fisheries by applying laws and protecting crucial habitats, particularly coral reefs and mangroves. They continue to support the implementation of sustainable fisheries management and reduce threats from IUU fishing, overfishing, and plastic pollution.

Watch the video here.

Photo credit: Diuvs de Jesus. Fisherfolk in West Philippine Sea.

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