Why we must protect our seas

Buena Bernal
Philippine fish stocks are depleting as a result of overfishing and habitat destruction


If funding reflects priority, then the government doesn’t seem to get how important marine protection is.


2012 study on the effective management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) indicated that “most MPAs struggle with budgetary constraints or lack of sustainable financing.”


While investing money into a cause is not a panacea, it is just as easy not to accord marine conservation the importance it deserves. (Like education, the benefits of investing in the sustainability of the environment are long-term.) 


A problem of mindset   


I raise the issue of funding not to belittle other aspects of state largesse but to highlight a wrongly framed notion that marine conservation is a financial burden.


This prevailing attitude towards marine sanctuaries and the environment in general may be caused by a human tendency to prefer immediate rewards over long-term gains, even if the more immediate gains are objectively and substantially smaller. 


Economists refer to this behavior as “hyperbolic discounting,” where the time factor amplifies the subjective value we attach to benefits in the short-term. 


The lack of political will to respond to the looming “oceans crisis” is, therefore, an issue of attitude and mindset. The value society places on marine ecosystems is disproportionately smaller than what is deserved.

BLUE WATERS. One of the 3 famous watch towers at the 32,000-hectare marine reserve area in Sagay City, Negros Occidental. Photo by Gilbert Bayoran

Sustaining livelihoods

Experts concur that the Philippines is critical to marine global biodiversity, being part of the “Coral Triangle.” (READ: 85% of ‘Coral Triangle’ reefs at risk)

The World Database on Marine Protected Areas, a project of the United Nations and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, lists a little less than 600 MPAs in the Philippines.

These 600 MPAs – key areas identified to be fish habitats – need to be managed properly in order to reverse the trend of depleting fish stocks. One of the ways to replenish fish stocks is to ensure effective MPA management.  This requires funding in the here and now.

It doesn’t take a marine scientist to figure out that depleting fish stocks negatively impacts livelihood in coastal communities.

The volume of fish caught compared to fishing cost – known in conservation biology as Catch per Unit Effort (CPUE) – is steadily declining in the Philippines.

Fishermen are left with a barely adequate profit of P90-P136 per day, based on official estimates. (Read: Fisherfolk suffer from PH seas degradation)

‘Oceans Crisis’

In its report entitled “Oceans in the Balance, Philippines in Focus,” environmental group Greenpeace urged the Aquino government to address the “two-pronged crisis of marine ecosystem degradation and overfishing” with a sense of urgency and to make marine protection and rehabilitation a national priority.

MPAs should not be clustered based on political boundaries of local governments and should instead be interconnected as part of a larger national MPA network, the group said.

This way, laws and management policies can be harmonized across the board.

In addition, gathering comprehensive baseline data for marine ecosystems and fisheries production must first be done before “embarking on a strong solutions work.”

Greenpeace also highlighted the need to transform the way we regard our oceans in accomplishing the courses of action it recommended.

SEASHORE SPECIES. Olive Ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) are some of the species nesting on West Philippine Sea shores. Photo by WWF-Philippines/Gregg Yan

Compassion for oceans

According to primatologist Dr Frans de Waal, humans are hardwired to be empathic. It is hard to empathize, however, when there are no feelings to empathize with. Unlike a hungry child, our seas cannot moan and express disgruntlement.

The seas have no ability to speak for themselves. If they could, they would probably complain about how we neglect them despite the bounties they provide.

The Philippine seas is home to some 3,000 species of fish, 648 species of mollusks, 820 species of algae, 5 of 7 known species of marine turtles, 27 species of whales and dolphins, and other organisms, as cited in the Greenpeace report.

The challenge for us humans is to extend our compassion to the vast ocean surrounding us. After all, the beneficiaries of well-protected seas include us today and not just the future generations.

Second chance

Years ago, energy policy-makers theorized that the world has already consumed half of its petroleum resources and is about to go on a decline to zero. They called the theory “Peak Oil,” and substantial resources from across governments were diverted to alternative energy sources as a response.

On May 15, Time Magazine reported an assessment by the International Energy Agency, saying in its headline that “peak oil is dead.”   

It would seem, despite our reckless use and extraction of coal, that mother nature gave us a second chance.

In any case, humanity’s consumption rate must adapt to the rate at which natural resources replenish. At the same time, we must sustain the rate of resource replenishment by protecting what sustains them.

In the Philippines, fish stocks are depleting as a result of overfishing and habitat destruction. We don’t know how many chances we still have from our oceans. – Rappler.com

Buena Bernal (@buenabernal) writes development stories at Rappler.

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