MANILA, Philippines — Experts have warned that the South China Sea — one of the world’s vital marine ecosystems — is on the edge of a fisheries collapse as it faces serious threats of overfishing.
However, Malacañang on Tuesday ignored this caution, arguing that the resource-rich waters will never run out of fish.
“Aren’t those fishes that were caught suposed to reproduce? Those fishes reproduce every day and the sea is vast,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in response to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s warning that Chinese fishermen could seize “all the fish” if given access to Philippine waters.
“So what’s his (Carpio) basis?” Panelo added.
President Rodrigo Duterte has frustrated nationalists after he shelved the Philippines’ legal victory against China’s sweeping claims in the resource-rich waters in exchange for warmer ties and economic windfall.
In his fourth State of the Nation Address, Duterte struck a defeatist tone and conceded that the Asian power is already “in possession” of the strategic waterway.
He also justified his “verbal” fishing deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping and stressed that asserting the Philippines’ rights over the sea would only trigger a war.
Carpio, earlier in July, warned that China has a large fleet of modern fishing vessels against the wooden boats most Filipino fisherfolk use. “The Chinese can deplete the fish in Reed Bank very quickly,” he said.
Dwindling resources in the South China Sea
The South China Sea accounts for about 12% of global fish catch in 2015. More than half of the fishing vessels in the world operate in these waters.
Meanwhile, the West Philippine Sea is considered an important fishing ground, with annual municipal fisheries production of 129,615.40 MT.
In a Sept. 13, 2017 report, Washington-based CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative warned that the marine ecosystem in the South China Sea is “in danger of collapse” unless claimant nations, including the Philippines, act urgently to stop the decline.
Total fish stocks in the South China Sea have been depleted by 70%-95% since the 1950s and catch rates have declined by 66%-75% over the last 20 years, AMTI said.
AMTI added that giant clam harvesting, dredging and artificial island building in recent years severely damaged or destroyed over 160 square kilometers — or about 40,000 acres — of coral reefs, which were already declining by 16% per decade.
“Overfishing or environmental destruction at any point in the chain affects all those who live around the sea,” the US-based think tank said.
“The entire South China Sea is teetering on the edge of a fisheries collapse, and the only way to avoid it is through multilateral cooperation in disputed waters,” it added.
According to conservation group World Wildlife Fund, overfishing can impact entire ecosystems.
“It can change the size of fish remaining, as well as how they reproduce and the speed at which they mature. When too many fish are taken out of the ocean it creates an imbalance that can erode the food web and lead to a loss of other important marine life, including vulnerable species like sea turtles and corals,” it also says.
Scientists: Keep Philippine EEZ exclusive
Earlier in July, the UP Marine Science Institute called on the government to ensure that access to the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, including waters in the West Philippine Sea is reserved for Filipinos.
“Allowing foreign entities to occupy and exploit these waters would be tantamount to denying Filipino fisherfolks access to their own food and resources,” they said then.
The scientists also raised the alarm on damage done to the area, particularly the “harvesting of clams and corals, dead or alive,” which they said damages and ultimately kills marine habitats.
“These are the same habitats that serve as home and breeding grounds of most marine life, and source of food of many Filipinos,” they said.
The scientists noted that fisheries production in Philippine waters has been declining and is seen to “drop further by 25-50% in a few years’ time.”
“Part of solving the problem is understanding the processes and interconnectivity of oceans and seas. For example, eggs, larvae, and small fishes born in the WPS and the larger Spratly Islands drift along ocean currents and settle in the coastal areas of Western Palawan and Northwestern Luzon,” they also said.
“As stewards of WPS, we are responsible for deterring ongoing and future activities and practices that endanger or damage our resources. These laws that apply to Filipinos should also apply to all, with no exemptions,” UP MSI also said, adding future generations of Filipinos could lose access to resources if the habitats and ecosystems in the West Philippine Sea are lost.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources had previously declared its own fishing ban at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and surrounding areas to protect marine resources and allow the fishes to spawn.
China also unilaterally imposes an annual moratorium on commercial fishing on waters it claims, including the West Philippine Sea.