West Philippine Sea

PH government plans research expedition to West Philippine Sea

Bea Cupin

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PH government plans research expedition to West Philippine Sea

ROZUL REEF. An NSC-funded expedition to Rozul Reef in 2021 showed a reef teeming with life. Photo courtesy of University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute

University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute

The plan comes following an underwater survey that found damage in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal after Chinese maritime militia were seen in the area

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines’ National Security Council (NSC) is planning marine scientific research in areas that were reportedly ruined after Chinese maritime militia boats were monitored there.

“[What] we need to do is to increase maritime patrols in the area and have a more extensive marine research by the scientific community to determine the exact damage to the environment,” NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said in a message to Rappler on September 20.

The council is already working with the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UPMSI) on the research endeavor, he added.

Asked if a scientific expedition is in the immediate future, Malaya said the NSC was already working on it.

The NSC has worked with the UPMSI extensively, most recently in 2021 when Filipino scientists embarked on a Marine Scientific Research (MSR) expedition funded by the NSC. This included a survey of Rozul Reef in the West Philippine Sea. Back then, the UP MSI said in a recent statement that “the surveyed area had a reef ecosystem, with corals, benthic animals, fishes, seaweeds, and other marine organisms.”

Things have changed a lot since then, according to the Philippine military and the Philippine Coast Guard. Both forces have said the reef, as well as Escoda Shoal or Sabina Shoal, now show damage after the PCG monitored the presence of Chinese maritime militia in the area.

“The continued swarming for an indiscriminate illegal and destructive fishing activities of the Chinese Maritime Militia in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment in the WPS features,” PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela said in a statement.

Chinese maritime militia, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are fishing boats that, in practice, “operate alongside Chinese law enforcement and military to achieve Chinese political objectives in disputed waters.”

The PCG has said that in recent months, it’s become clearer that Chinese maritime militia take orders from the Chinese Coast Guard, a force under China’s military force.

Tensions in the South China Sea, particularly in the West Philippine Sea or areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, have escalated in recent months due to China’s incursions and harassment of Philippine boats. In early August, the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons against PCG and AFP-commissioned vessels on a failed resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippines’ outpost in the West Philippine Sea.

Succeeding resupply missions were completed, but not without harassment both from the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia.

What we lose from Rozul Reef, Escoda Shoal

China has a sweeping claim over the South China Sea – exemplified best, perhaps, by the infamous 9- turned 10-dash line in the key waterway. The claim is so sweeping that China has refused to accept a 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated that claim.

Defending the West Philippine Sea is a gut issue, too, explained UPMSI’s Van Rodriguez. “Losing coral reefs would result in the depletion of crucial fishery resources like fishes, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, seashells, seaweeds, and more, posing a significant threat to food security,” she said.

A PCG marine survey held around the same time Chinese maritime militia boats were spotted there showed “severe damage inflicted upon the marine environment and coral reef in the seabed of Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal.”

“Destruction of critical habitats such as coral reefs within our exclusive economic zone poses a threat to the government’s mission of ensuring food security for the nation. Consequently, it is imperative for the government to safeguard these habitats within our EEZ,” added Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, as expert on coral reef ecology and coral restoration, said establishing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) “stands as a favorable initiative on environmental front and science-driven approach.”

Under Philippine law, an MPA is a “defined area of the sea established and set aside” by a law or administrative regulation – that means Congress or the executive. An MPA aims to “conserve and protect a part of or the entire enclosed environment through the establishment of management guidelines,” or by placing limits on human activity. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.