environmental conservation

‘We need to be out there’: Long-term monitoring of marine resources needed in West Philippine Sea

Laurice Angeles

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‘We need to be out there’: Long-term monitoring of marine resources needed in West Philippine Sea

Filipino scientists, accompanied by personnel from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Philippine Coast Guard, conduct an assessment at cays close to Pag-asa in the West Philippine Sea on March 21, 2024.

Philippine Coast Guard

Scientists say long-term and systematic monitoring is needed to observe trends of marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, and to ensure recovery and rehabilitation

MANILA, Philippines – Long-term and systematic monitoring will ensure the survival of marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, scientists said in a forum on Monday, May 13.

“These [underwater resources] are our treasures, but we don’t have a lot of information on what’s going on,” said Jonathan Anticamara, professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute of Biology (IB). “We don’t look at them.”

The West Philippine Sea covers around 40% of Philippine waters. In an article published in 2021, the Philippine Space Agency cited studies showing that the area has a diverse marine ecosystem, including 30% of the coral reef in the Philippines. The area also contributes to 27% of commercial fisheries production in the country. 

The Philippines, however, does not have a systematic database to analyze trends of the state of marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, like coral reefs, seagrass habitats, and fish species. Data also show that the number of research stations in the area is fewer compared to the research stations in waters east of the country.

“That’s a really big problem, we don’t know how many species are extinct or going extinct. How are we going to manage them without this information?” Anticamara said. 

Data presented in the forum show that many of the marine resources in the West Philippine Sea have already degraded. UP Marine Science Institute (MSI) director Laura David said that the amount of living coral reefs in the area has declined as more space has been taken up by reclaimed land.

Reclamation and dredging have been a problem to the marine environment in the West Philippine Sea. In an ongoing dispute over the waters between China and the Philippines, the former has been building artificial islands in the area, particularly around Pag-asa (Thitu) Island.

“When I did the survey…I was heavy-hearted because I looked at Pag-asa – I swam the entire Pag-asa and not a lot of corals [were] left,” Anticamara said. “The fish are very few.”

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Anticamara, who has been doing surveys to check on the state of coral reefs and other fish species around the island, said there might be areas that are doing okay. But to know for sure, current data must be updated.

“To update this means I need to write many grants. I don’t sleep…. I basically just drive to almost all these places [with my scuba gear]…. I don’t have a day off,” Anticamara said.

“It’s very tiring to some extent. I think there should be a more systematic way to do this [in a long-term and standardized way].” 

David also said that more regular and increased research efforts will help recover the marine resources in the West Philippine Sea.

“Long-term monitoring will help us see trends. Because if we’re only there one or two times, a decade apart, it’s very hard to say something. We need to be there more frequently,” David said. “And we need to have a strategic plan on how to actually monitor these things.”

Multidisciplinary approach

The issues in the West Philippine Sea are not a single-agency activity, College of Science dean Giovanni Tapang emphasized in the forum.

Tapang said that the MSI, IB, and the College of Science in UP would want to work with other national government agencies to address these issues together. 

“This has to be done with proper coordination, open communications, and continued support,” Tapang added. 

David said that the MSI has been working with the National Coast Watch Council whenever they go out to sea. The council consists of different departments including the National Security Council, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and the Philippine Coast Guard.

Other than safety concerns, informing the council of the MSI’s activities in the West Philippine Sea and other parts of the Philippines helps other agencies and departments to coordinate when it comes to data.

Sana lalo pang mapagtibay at magpatuloy kasi eventually the government needs all of this data naman and all of this coordination,” David said. 

(We hope that this coordination continues and is strengthened further because the government will eventually need all of this data.)

During the forum, academician Fernando Siringan at the National Academy of Science and Technology and professor at the MSI talked about the Pagasa Island Research Center, a working and operational marine station in the island. The station was built under a grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Science and Technology.

Siringan and other scientists at the MSI hope to have more scientists and professionals come up with proposals and work at the marine station. 

“This is a facility for everyone…. I would highly encourage that we work together,” Siringan said. 

Alam ko na kaya natin, kaya ninyo na mag-isa na gawin ang trabaho. (I know that we can work on our own.) But I tell you it is much better when you do it with others.” – Rappler.com

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