Focus: Marine riches of South China Sea

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Top environmental lawyer hits 'small thinking' that focuses on oil in South China Sea, the site of an ongoing standoff between the Philippines and China

TOP LAWYER. One of Asia's leading voices in environmental law, Antonio Oposa Jr, makes a proposal amid the Scarborough Shoal dispute. Photo by Melvyn Calderon

MANILA, Philippines – Territorial disputes for oil? This reflects “small thinking,” one of Asia’s top environmental lawyers said.

Antonio Oposa Jr, recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, suggested elevating the South China Sea debates “to a very high moral plane” in a letter to President Benigno Aquino III, which Oposa first published on Rappler.

“Small thinking is to quarrel over a few pieces of rock in the middle of a big sea in the hope of finding oil to take out and use up for the present needs of a single country. Big thinking is that instead of fighting like children over a piece of candy, let us bring the debate to an altogether different plane,” the Magsaysay awardee said in his letter posted in Rappler’s Thought Leaders section Wednesday, April 25.

Oposa proposed declaring the Spratly Islands, as well as the South China Sea, an international marine reserve.

Located in South China Sea is Scarborough Shoal, the site of an ongoing standoff between the Philippines and China after alleged territorial incursions over 2 weeks ago. The site has fueled optimism over its potential oil resources.

While its definitions vary depending on policy, a marine reserve is generally an area that protects its species from certain activities.

The world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), calls a similar set-up a marine protected area.

It is “any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical, and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment,” the IUCN says.

‘Moral high road’

By declaring the Spratlys and the South China Sea as an international marine reserve and nature park, the Philippines will not antagonize other countries that claim parts of it as their territory, Oposa said.

“Instead, the Philippines will be taking the moral high road, and thereby earn the respect of the world that is increasingly more environmentally aware. Rather than fight with the claimant countries in competition to use resources for the present, we will bring the countries together in cooperation to reserve resources for the future,” he explained.

Oposa noted other countries will likely resist this. “That is expected and is, in fact, most welcome because it will spark a worldwide debate,” Oposa said.

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

Possibilities abound, he said. The Philippines, for example, can propose the establishment of an International Marine Station, much like the International Space Station.

“There is no limit to the benefits of cooperation when people understand that no one really owns anything, and that we are all just passing through,” Oposa said.

He said for the President, a good first step is to issue a presidential proclamation to declare the claimed areas of the Spratly Islands, as well as its surrounding seas that the Philippines claims, as a nationaly protected area and marine reserve. Aquino can then certify a bill to have Congress pass it into law, Oposa added.

“This initiative will show the seriousness of purpose of the Philippines and of the Filipino people in their desire for peace and for the protection of the marine life for the benefit of future generations of humankind,” he said.

The Palace has yet to reply to Oposa’s letter. Rappler is still trying to reach Palace spokespersons for comment as of posting time.

Marine wealth

With over 3,300 species of fish in the area, the South China Sea is one of the world’s centers of biodiversity. (Photos below, shot in various Philippine locations, show the types of species found in the South China Sea.)

The whole area measures over 3.4 million square kilometers – or roughly 5,488 times the size of Metro Manila.

International law and marine affairs professor Dr Wang Hanling, however, has noted the gradual destruction of the South China Sea.

CYLINDRICAL SANDPERCH. Living on a mostly carnivorous diet, sandperches dwell mostly in coastal reefs and lagoons. Photo courtesy of Blogie Robillo,

THORNY SEAHORSE. These seahorses blend in with their surroundings by attaching their tails to anything they can find near coral reefs. Photo courtesy of Blogie Robillo,

“The South China Sea large marine ecosystem was characterized as severely impacted in terms of overfishing – about 40% of the stocks are collapsed or overexploited, with severe socioeconomic and community consequences,” Wang wrote in the journal South China Sea Studies.

“In addition, excessive bycatch and discards, and destructive fishing practices which include cyanide and dynamite fishing, and the use of small-meshed nets have also caused adverse impacts on marine living resources… Moreover, about 70% of the coral reefs are heavily depleted,” Wang wrote.

The Scarborough Shoal standoff itself began not only with alleged territorial incursions, but also with accusations that Chinese fishermen collected endangered species, like corals, giant clams, and live sharks, in the area. 

ROCKMOVER WRASSE. Also known as the reindeer wrasse or the dragon wrasse, these fish are named for the way they turn over stones to find prey. Photo courtesy of Blogie Robillo,

‘Significant’ initiative

Environmental groups like Kalikasan Partylist have raised a howl over this.

“It should be clear that the problem (of illegal wildlife poaching) is a concern of both the Philippine and Chinese governments, regardless of the still-unresolved issue of sovereign ownership,” Kalikasan said in a statement.

BROWN ANEMONEFISH EGGS. As the name suggest, they live mostly in families in sea anemones. Photo courtesy of Blogie Robillo,

ZEBRA TURKEYFISH. These brightly-colored ray-finned fish have poisonous spines for protection. Photo courtesy of Blogie Robillo,

The Philippines’ initiative in protecting marine life in the South China Sea, according to Oposa, is especially significant.

“Precisely because we are the most gifted of the seas, we have the credibility and the responsibility to advocate for its conservation not only for today but for all time,” Oposa said. – with reports from Apa Agbayani and Benise Balaoing/


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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email