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UP professors urge long-term monitoring of West Philippine Sea resources

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THE ongoing dispute over the West Philippine Sea between China and the Philippines hinders Filipino scientists from conducting scientific work in Philippine territory, but something can still be done.

The University of the Philippines – Diliman College of Science (UPD-CS) facilitated a public forum titled SCIENCE X WPS: Opportunities and Challenges for Scientists in the West Philippine Sea on May 13, 2024. During the public forum, UP professors discussed the current geopolitical and ecological situation in the West Philippine Sea, as well as strategies that scientists and researchers can use to protect and preserve the sea’s marine resources.

“The issue of the West Philippine Sea is not a single topic issue, it is also not a single-agency activity.” UPD-CS Dean Giovanni Tapang said, with an invitation to collaborate with other agencies, as part of the university’s mandate to serve the nation. “The College of Science would want to work with everyone to address not only the scientific issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea but other issues as well.”

Threats and Opportunities in the West Philippine Sea

The West Philippine Sea faces a lot of risk because of climate change, shared Dr. Laura David, UPD-CS Marine Science Institute (MSI) Director. Changes in the environment have a huge impact on coastal habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass, and mangroves.

Dr. David listed several threats that the West Philippine Sea faces. Overfishing is a major challenge that Filipino fisherfolk experience. “People think that our neighbors are interested in the West Philippine Sea because of natural gas. That’s true, but they’re also interested in the fish because they have to feed their population.”

She also pointed out that, unlike the Philippines, neighboring countries subsidize the catch of their fisherfolks by giving additional compensation for every tub of fish they catch aside from the cost of the actual fish.

Oil spills and land use are other threats that the West Philippine Sea deals with. Dr. David cited the oil spill in the Verde Island Passage in 2023 as proof that the Philippines is still not prepared for such occurrences. Mangroves have also degraded all over the South China Sea area because of converting mangrove areas for other land use, therefore contributing to a huge percentage of mangrove loss.

Dr. David also mentioned plastics as a huge threat to the West Philippine Sea, with plastic waste floating in places far from populated islands. “In certain areas, including West Palawan, you have mostly fishing gears. But as you come closer to the population, then it becomes trash associated with shampoos, sachets, snacks, and so on. If you look at the labels of those, they are not just in English. They’re in different languages. That means it’s coming from all over the South China Sea,” Dr. David added.

The reclamation of islands has jarring effects on the West Philippine Sea. Dr. David said that the number of alive coral reefs declined as the amount of occupations rose. “Somebody has to be held liable for all that damages because the damage is not just local,” she further explained. Everything that happens across the whole South China Sea region ends up having an impact on all countries in that area, but Dr. David said that the Philippines is the country that experiences the highest impact – with the number of fish families found in the West Philippine Sea declining from 34 to 22 in just 20 years.

Dr. Fernando Siringan, Academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology and Professor at MSI said that one threat the West Philippine Sea should also consider is tsunamis that occur because of earthquakes.

“Sana may mga simulations rin tayong gawin, tingnan natin kung ano ang epekto ng mga tsunami sa ating mga pulo-pulo, at maging bahagi ‘yon ng ating consideration sa pagdevelop ng mga isla [in West Philippine Sea],” Dr. Siringan shared, who also mentioned that monitoring the occurrences of natural hazards such as tsunamis, storm surges, and floods will help researchers determine what kind of structures can be developed in the West Philippine Sea. 

Dr. David underscored the importance of long-term monitoring as a tool for creating strategic plans for protecting and preserving marine resources. “We need to increase our research efforts, and we need to involve a lot of other disciplines. We need to talk to the fishers, and we need more policymakers so that we can make better-informed policies for the West Philippine Sea,” she concluded.

Similar to Dr. David, Dr. Siringan also encouraged conducting long-term monitoring activities involving marine and terrestrial biodiversity in the West Philippine Sea region. “I-sample natin ‘yung mga hindi pa na-sample, at magkakaroon tayo ng maraming discoveries. Kailangan nating idescribe kung saan natin sila nakita, ano ang kanilang kondisyon. Makakatulong ito in understanding the area’s biology and diversity,” he specified, adding that these studies can help in designing a marine protected area in the West Philippine Sea.

Apart from letting scientists study the West Philippine Sea, Dr. Siringan calls on the government to fund these research projects, for studying the ocean is expensive and can be perilous. “Hindi man tao ‘yung source ng fear mo, nandoon ‘yung alon, ‘yung agos ng tubig. Mamatayan ka ng makina, saan ka pupulutin?” he said.

In his talk, Dr. Siringan mentioned the Pagasa Island Research Station, a marine station in Pagasa Island. For 2024, an additional six marine stations all over the country will soon be established. Dr. Siringan recommended marine researchers collaborate with them at the marine stations. “This is a facility for everyone, I would highly encourage that we work together,” he added.

The current geopolitical situation in the West Philippine Sea

Professor Herman Joseph Kraft of the UPD College of Social Sciences and Philosophy – Department of Political Science briefly introduced geopolitics, which, when applied to the West Philippine Sea issue, is more than the Philippines versus China. “On one hand, you’re talking about questions of control over space. But, on the other hand, that control involves the relationship between the great powers – particularly, the competition between China and the United States,” he said.

According to Professor Kraft, countries located in the South China Sea adjusted their claims based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The only country that has not made any changes and whose claim is not based on UNCLOS is China with its nine-dash line. The UNCLOS also added that maritime domains emanate from land territory. “What China has here is excessive because it goes farther away or quite far from the territory of China itself,” Professor Kraft said.

There are several reasons why China wants to claim a wide area of the South China Sea and its islands from other neighboring countries. This includes controlling maritime and air traffic, accessing marine resources, and pursuing petroleum interests. China has built artificial islands for its vessels to resupply, allowing for longer lingering times.

The solution, Professor Kraft mentioned, is multilateral cooperation with other countries. “The geopolitical situation requires the Philippines to work with various partners to try to maintain the situation in the region,” he added. However, this isn’t an easy solution, as this means being involved in the competition between two powerful forces.

“On one hand, the Philippines seeks to be able to assert its claims and sovereign rights vis-à-vis China. But in doing so, its inability to do anything on the waters requires us to work with the United States, which puts us in a situation where we seem to choose the US over China,” Professor Kraft concluded. “The Philippines is caught in a situation where it has to make diplomatic and political choices regarding the kind of situation it faces now in the West Philippine Sea,” he said further.

Looking beyond West Philippine Sea resources

“We cannot separate the West Philippine Sea from the rest of the country.” Dr. Jonathan Anticamara of the Institute of Biology said, emphasizing the importance of the Philippines’ marine resources – including those in the West Philippine Sea. “Our marine resources are our treasures, but we don’t have a lot of information on what’s going on. We don’t have a systematic database to analyze what’s going on over time. These are our resources, we are small islands in the middle of the Pacific and we shouldn’t forget that.”

Dr. Anticamara mentioned how the Philippines greatly expanded its fishing power and efforts – such as the number of boats and fishers – which led to an increase in contributions of the Philippines to global fisheries. “As Asia’s and the Philippines’ fishing power increase, the production decreases. Fisheries production in the Philippines has declined by more than 60% or 80%. Government agencies give thousands of boats and ships, yet these are just lying [around],” he added.

Lower fisheries production and overfishing resulted in extreme poverty experienced by fishing communities in the Philippines. Dr. Anticamara said that changes should be implemented in taking care of fish and other marine resources. “Filipinos have to think about strategies. How can we make money while not destroying these resources? We need to feed ourselves, but there has to be balance at the end.”

Science has a critical role in protecting the Philippines’ marine resources. Dr. Anticamara emphasized the need for long-term monitoring to better grasp the state of the country’s marine resources, and how to better preserve it.

“Good quality of life can be built by ensuring that nature is doing well and that people are not harming and destroying nature,” Dr. Anticamara said. “Even without China, if the Filipinos don’t have the intention to take care of these resources, then we’ll walk into the future where all of these resources are dead and Filipinos are very, very poor with nothing to eat.” |

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