“Even amid our abundant marine resources, our fishermen are among the poorest of the poor because of three major problems: declining fish catch, degraded marine habitats, and encroachment of commercial fishers engaged in bottom trawling.”

— Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos
Oceana Philippines Vice President

“Alam mo naman sa gobyerno … alam na natin … kung ano … minsan effective, minsan hindi …”

Such broken, unfinished sentences, yet pregnant with undertones, about government action comes from fisherman Caloy (not his real name) expressed in a video recently presented by Oceana, an international ocean conservation and advocacy organization.

Atty. Gloria “Golly” Estenzo Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines and a member of the Executive Committee of Oceana International, says Oceana is in our country because the Philippines is “the center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the world.

Atty. Ramos points out that our marine resources provide food for 50 million Filipinos and long-term livelihood to 1.8 million fisherfolk.

What’s more, as the top 11th exporter of wild-caught fish, the Philippines helps feed the world.

Marine biodiversity refers to the richness and abundance in the world’s seas and oceans. The world is 70% water, which provides most of what we need to survive—food, livelihood, health resources, and even recreation areas. If we destroy our waters, we practically destroy our world.

Wild-caught fish are those caught by fishermen from their natural habitat, as in the sea, such as swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, shark, and tuna. Farm-raised fish—tilapia, catfish or hito, salmon—are, yes, raised by farmers.

Debate is ongoing about which is better—wild-caught or farm-raised. Those against farm-raised say the fish are fed with antibiotics or pesticides—which could make you sick. While those against wild-caught, worry over environmental issues such as commercial fishing—especially through bottom trawling—which is destroying the seas, many areas of which, including those around our territory, are already overfished.

Oceana Philippines campaigns officer Candeze Mongaya presents as an example, the plight of sardines. She says in 2015, the Philippines had a net 344,730,201 kilograms of sardines, worth P7.43 billion, which makes sardines a major economic driver.

Mongaya says that there are telltale signs of overfishing of sardines: the catch is dwindling, and those caught are smaller than their parent-sardines we enjoyed many years ago. The culprits, Mongaya adds, are climate change and ocean temperatures, plus those using killer fishing gears.

Which brings us to bottom trawling. It refers to fishing using a cone-shaped net to catch bottom-dwelling creatures and invertebrates. In the Philippines, trawlers operate on soft, sandy, and muddy seabeds. Their target: the highly-prized shrimps and prawns we so want to have on our table.

As the top 11th exporter of wild-caught fish, the Philippines helps feed the world.

Alas, Atty. Ramos laments, even amid our abundant marine resources, our fishermen are among the poorest of the poor because of three major problems: declining fish catch, degraded marine habitats, and encroachment of commercial fishers engaged in bottom trawling, using gear like a vacuum cleaner to collect seafood from our municipal waters.

Atty. Ramos says Oceana mounts campaigns combining policy, advocacy, science, law, media, and public pressure to save the oceans from pollution and irresponsible industrial fishing. She added that the success of the campaigns depends largely on the cooperation of local government units. Without their will to implement the laws, saving the seas will be nothing but an impossible dream.

Woman sells fish in Moalboal.

At the Bulong Pulungan media forum (seated from left): Mila Alora, moderator Deedee Siytangco, Jullie Yap Daza, Atty. Gloria Ramos, and Rina David; (standing, from left): Oceana PR consultant Rosary Ysmael, Bob Zozobrado, Cynthia Santiago, Oceana social media strategist Desiree Ong, Candeze Mongaya, and Noel Reyes.

Atty. Ramos says that Oceania is supporting the implementation of a presidential proclamation, recently signed by President Rodrigo Duterte, formally declaring parts of the Philippine Rise undersea feature as a marine resource reserve.

The President announced the signing of the decree in a media briefing aboard BRP Davao Del Sur off the coast of Aurora in the northeastern part of the Philippines, which is the nearest port to Benham Bank.

Benham Bank used to be known as Kalipung-awan until American surveyors discovered the plateau and named it after Admiral Andrew Benham, a US Navy officer.

Benham Bank is the shallowest region of the Philippine Rise, a 24.4 million hectare undersea region located east of Luzon.

Government scientists who went to the area in 2016 said they saw terraces of corals, “as far as the eye could see.” This means we still have such a vast and pristine coral reef ecosystem within the Philippine territory, which we still need to protect, shares Marianne Pan Saniano a marine scientist for Oceana Philippines.

The area includes a 13.4-million hectare outer section that was validated by the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLOS) as part of the Philippine territory in 2012.

The Duterte proclamation declares Benham Bank as part of the Philippine Rise protected area. Benham Bank, which is around 17,000 hectares, has been declared as a no-take zone and will be closed to any human activity except for scientific research.

Oceana quotes President Duterte as saying that the presidential proclamation includes the requirement for continuous assessment of coral reef and fish species, which he says is “vital for the management of the Philippine Rise and its resources.”

President Duterte also committed to enabling Filipino scientists to fulfill their mandates in conducting scientific research in the Philippine Rise by signing into law the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) Act of 2018 or Republic Act 11038, which adopts strong amendatory measures to the 24-year-old National Integrated Protected Area Systems (NIPAS) Act. The RA 11038 strengthens protection and adds more than 100 legislated protected areas in the Philippines, including the Philippine Rise Marine Resource Reserve.

Atty. Ramos says, “We laud the timely passage of the ENIPAS Act, as it will enhance the conservation efforts undertaken for our unique but vastly threatened biodiversity and ecosystems including our marine habitats.”

Aside from Benham Bank, the ENIPAS Act includes the Tañon Strait which was established as a Protected Seascape by President Fidel Ramos under Proclamation 1234 of 1998.

Tañon Strait, known for whale and dolphin watching, is 161 kilometers long and connects the Visayan Sea and the Bohol Sea, along the cities of San Carlos, Negros Occidental, Bais, Negros Oriental, and Toledo, Cebu.

Oceana’s partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies for its Vibrant Oceans Initiatives program aims to restore fish populations in some countries including the Philippines.

In the video, Dr. Mundita Lim, Biodiversity Management Bureau director of the Department and Natural Resources, pointed out that 42 municipalities and towns are dependent on Tañon Strait for most of their livelihood and food supply. “Tañon is our everything,” she added.

A fisherman attests that as early as 1990, the catch at Tañon had begun dwindling mainly because of illegal fishing such as dynamite fishing and commercial vessel encroachment. That’s because there was limited law enforcement in place to protect the Tañon Seascape.

Antha Williams, head of Bloomberg’s Environmental Programs, says: “When we looked at the landscape, we saw a really dire problem in overfishing and so Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Vibrant Oceans Initiatives to solve the problem.”

Bloomberg has partnered with Rare Philippines, a non-governmental organization addressing environmental problems by directly working with local communities, and Oceana which works on national policy reforms.

Atty. Ramos says: “Oceana came in 2014, and we were able to immediately enter into agreements with local government units, which had long been partners of rare. Our victory for us really was the resolution requiring vessel monitoring for all commercial fishing vessels in Tañon Strait. The fisherfolk are the ones to tell you now that the fish are coming back.”

The local officials are also happy. Says Bindoy Mayor Valente Yap: “When we started the program, we were having fish catch of only one to two kilos a day. And after two years with the program, our fishermen are enjoying four to five kilos a day. It’s more income for the family. They can send their children to colleges and we can also reduce malnutrition.”

Manjuyod Mayor Felix Sy, points out: “What we have done in Tañon Strait—this is a model to be replicated in other areas. To have an alliance.” That’s good news for Caloy and his fellow fishermen.

Indeed, we’ve heard the Chinese proverb many times already: “Give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.” Yes, for a lifetime. As long as we have this alliance of all concerned, especially the local governments, to save the oceans. — CYNTHIA U. SANTIAGO 

Photos courtesy of Oceana Philippines

There are telltale signs of overfishing of sardines—and the culprits are climate and ocean temperatures plus the guys using killer fishing gears.


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