West Philippine Sea

WATCH: 2021 footage shows now-damaged Rozul Reef’s former splendor

Bea Cupin
WATCH: 2021 footage shows now-damaged Rozul Reef’s former splendor
The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute says the incident only shows the Philippines needs to support more marine scientific research in the West Philippine Sea

MANILA, Philippines – The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) released on Tuesday, September 19, old footage of parts of Rozul Reef – among the areas in the West Philippine Sea that Philippine authorities say is now damaged following the constant presence of Chinese boats in the area.

In a statement, the UP MSI declined to comment on the current condition of the reef but said it was open to working with other agencies to assess “the impacts of recent activities in the area.”

Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal are the two features in the West Philippine Sea, or part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said was now destroyed after they monitored between 15 to 33 Chinese maritime militia vessels entering the vicinity of the reef and shoal.

The PCG said that between August 9 and September 11, it monitored 33 Chinese vessels within the vicinity of Rozul Reef and around 15 Chinese ships near Escoda Shoal. Around the same time too, the PCG conducted underwater surveys of the area.

“The results of these surveys showed that the marine ecosystem in the subject WPS features appeared lifeless, with minimal to no signs of life,” said PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela, the agency’s spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea, in a statement released Monday, September 18.

The PCG’s findings are in stark contrast to the UP MSI’s findings from back in 2021, during an expedition funded by the National Security Council.

“At that time, we found that the surveyed area had a reef ecosystem, with corals, benthic animals, fishes, seaweeds, and other marine organisms,” said the UP MSI in a statement on Tuesday, referring to their 2021 survey.

Animal, Nature, Outdoors
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

“Situations like this emphasize the need for continuous monitoring and support for more MSR activities by Filipino scientists, especially in the West Philippine Sea,” said the research institute.

The UP MSI’s videos and photos showed a reef teeming with life, with fish swimming around the coral reef. In contrast, video from the PCG’s 2023 survey showed visible discoloration in the coral and “minimal to no signs” of any other forms of marine life.

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs has said it was “seriously concerned” over reports of damage in Rozul Reef. American Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson, in a post on X, said “habitat damage harms ecosystems and negatively affects lives and livelihoods.”

“We are working with our #FriendsPartnersAllies to protect [Philippine] natural resources,” she said, without going into specifics.

1Sambayan, a coalition of pro-democracy groups and individuals, condemned the reported destruction of the reef, especially because coral reefs are the breeding ground for fish. Their ruin may also mean the further depletion of fish stock from the sea.

The group also recalled that in the 2016 arbitral award, the tribunal found that Chinese fishermen had been harvesting giant clams in such a way that destroyed the marine environment.

The illegal harvesting of giant clams is a huge concern to the Philippines. According to a 2021 National Geographic report, the giant clam shells are a high-value commodity in China because of its use as an alternative to ivory.

1Sambayan also called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to direct the UP MSI to conduct another maritime survey, file a diplomatic protest if the survey results warrant as much, and bring the case before an international tribunal if it is warranted.

Marcos has yet to comment on the reported destruction of Rozul Reef and Escolda Shoal. – 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.