PALAWAN, Philippines — Fisherfolk from various parts of the Philippines and civil society organizations are drawing a shared plan of action to protect the West Philippine Sea, a treasured body of water with a heritage status most potent among the generations of fishers whose families have been fed by its waters.
More than a hundred representatives from fisher associations and advocacy groups at the Civil Society Organizations Summit for the Conservation of the West Philippine Seascape (WPS) signed a joint statement to preserve the marine biodiversity and ecosystem of the WPS and to keep the local fishing industry alive amid threats to their livelihood.
The statement includes the groups’ “assertion of sovereign rights” over the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone in the disputed waters and their commitment to protect the “highly diverse coastal and marine area,” which generates rich sources of food and livelihood for Filipinos.
“Each organization has different backgrounds and capabilities that can contribute to the enrichment and attainment of the unified vision for WPS,” the statement read. “We commit to have an inclusive, sustained approach towards mobilizing resources and building broader strategic influence in the governance of WPS.”
Convened at Puerto Princesa Palawan from March 1 to 3, the summit formed the first broad alliance among non-government organizations on the protection of the WPS and the fishers who depend on its resources, specifically through the elimination of illegal fishing and the identification of fresh sources of capital and income for affected fishers.
Nearly 60 organizations, including municipal fisherfolk people’s organizations, fishers and community leaders from the Kalayaan Island Group, commercial fishing associations, environmental advocacy groups and academic institutions, signed the unity statement.
Fisherfolk emphasized during the revisions of the document that any plan of action to protect the resources at the WPS required not just scientific evidence, but also community knowledge from fishers who witness immediately the impact of any foreign intrusion at sea.
Acknowledging that the ecosystem at the WPS “(generates) rich economic and social benefits for Filipinos,” the joint statement includes the signatories’ commitment to pursue plans that are “science-based, informed by local knowledge and products of the consultative process, for the benefit of the Filipinos and the world.
Sea protection necessary for food security
While the Chinese government previously dismissed its coast guard’s actions against Filipino fishermen on Philippine waters as a mere diplomatic irritant, fishers at the summit said that the foreign aggression at sea can rob them of days’ worth of catch and keep them from feeding their families.
Pablo Rosales, president of the Unity of Fishermen’s Associations (PANGISDA), added that pollutants from Chinese ships and Chinese development projects on parts of the West Philippine Sea have severely damaged ts marine resources.
“Ngayon ang tubig ay nilalason at ginagawang lupa, mawawala ang mga isda (Now that the water is being poisoned and being converted to land, the fish will disappear),” Rosales said in Filipino.
Rosales added that the fluvial parades staged by fishing groups from Metro Manila and Cavite against the reclamation of Manila Bay can be replicated in opposing the intrusion of Chinese vessels in the WPS.
“It’s important that the sea remains the sea, that the sea becomes richer with times. That even if Filipinos’ needs (for food) increase and consumption grows, fishermen can fulfill their duty of supplying food to the country,” Rosales added.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing as one of the biggest threats to the fishing industry, according to the alliance of organizations. This can be stamped out “increasing compliance to fishery and other relevant laws and regulations in the WPS, and advocate for appropriate laws and policies,” they added.
Neil Catibog, Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources division chief, said that more than half of apprehensions of illegal fishing incidents in parts of the WPS involved the use of ring nets as fishing gear, which is prohibited in municipal waters. Meanwhile, explosives, which are the most destructive to aquatic habitats, was the second most used fishing method.
Previous estimates by Rosales pegged that around 3,000 fishermen and their families have been affected by intimidation from Chinese vessels since 2019.
Declaration of WPS as a Marine Protected Area
Along with appeals to assert the Philippines’ jurisdiction over parts of West Philippine Sea, the summit also amplified calls among scientists and research institutions to protect the “life support systems” provided by its ecosystem by declaring it as a Marine Protected Area (MPA).
Ben Malayang, professor emeritus of Environmental Policy and Governance Institute of Environmental and Marine Science at Silliman University, said that the world — not just the Philippines — has a stake in reducing threats to WPS because of the waters’ shield-like function against a warming climate.
“The West PH Sea functions as some kind of nursery where you nurture lots of larvae and propagules hat are distributed in wider areas in the South China Sea. For that reason, we can see the West PH sea is very important ecologically to the entirety of the South China Sea and even beyond,” Malayang told Philstar.com. “It is our common heritage.”
Malayang added that it is “ecologically and scientifically imperative” to reduce threats to the marine resources of the WPS despite the ongoing dispute over which country has jurisdiction over its parts.
“Whether or not we are competing over who has jurisdiction over these waters, I think that needs to be considered a separate, if not linked, issue to the more urgent need to protect the very ecological systems that give value to this sea,” Malayang continued.
The World Wildlife Fund has echoed local environmental groups’ and fisher organizations’ calls to declare the WPS an MPA, citing specifically that China’s encroachment led to significant decline of the reef area, which directly reduces the amount of fish left for Filipinos to reel in.
Rep. Edward Hagedorn (Palawan, 3rd District), who authored the committee-approved measure to declare parts of the West Philippine Sea as an MPA, told Philstar.com that he has received assurances from lawmakers at the House of Representatives on the speedy passage of the bill.
House Bill (HB) No. 6373 aims to designate all low-tide elevations and high-tide features, and an area of three nautical miles around the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal as MPA.
Hagedorn, who spoke during the summit’s closing ceremony, said that he has also “received support” on the bill from lawmakers at the Senate and has heard that Sen. Rafael Tulfo would be filing a similar counterpart measure, but he has yet to speak to the senator on the matter.
Fisherman Roberto “Ka Dodoy” Ballon, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee in 2021 for his work in reviving the fishing industry at Zamboanga Sibugay, said that the government must pursue urgent action in protecting the sea from further degradation.
“Our most important call is to make Filipino fishermen feel that the natural heritage of the West Philippine Sea is really for them,” Ballon said.
The signed manifesto also included the empowerment of fisherfolk and their cooperatives to be the central voice in discussions on the WPS, which involves their “(effective) participate and represent in governance activities.”
Other plans of action ratified by the alliance involve promoting climate mitigation and ecosystem-based adaption strategies, as well as developing a research agenda that would consider “ethical and equitable considerations” that affect local communities, especially municipal and small-scale fishers