MANILA -- Environmentalists, scientists, and civil society groups reiterated on Wednesday the need for the creation of a separate government agency to give more attention to and support for the sustainable development of the country's fisheries and aquatic resources.
"As the Philippines transition to 'blue economy', we call on the creation of a separate Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that will be mandated to study, utilize, manage, and protect the largest ecosystem and future biggest contributor to Philippine economy -- our oceans and seas," said Dr. Deo Onda of the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), in a press conference in Quezon City organized by Oceana Philippines.
The concept of "blue economy" has emerged as an important approach to driving the sustainable development of coasts and oceans, and a number of international organizations like the United Nations and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), along with several East Asian economies, have taken up the call for developing a blue economy in the region.
The Philippines is considered a highly-biodiverse country, being at the center of the Coral Triangle, which has now been recognized as the global center for marine biodiversity,
Records show that for the past five years, the fisheries sector recorded negative growth -- -0.15 percent in 2014, -1.96 percent in 2015, -4.18 percent in 2016, -1.73 percent in 2017, and -1.13 percent in 2018 despite having 220 million hectares of territorial waters including the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 750,000 hectares of inland waters (lakes, rivers, reservoirs), and a coastline of 17,460 kilometers.
Onda said the EEZ is the area surrounding the Philippines up to 200 nautical miles from the shore. Fisheries production of both municipal and EEZ waters of the country has declined over the past decades and is predicted to drop further by 25 to 50 percent in a few years' time.
One of the country's EEZs and is considered a rich fishing ground plentiful in marine life is the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
The WPS EEZ stretches from Batanes to the south of Balabac in Southern Palawan, including the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the Spratlys.
During the expedition, the UP-MSI team collected about six crates of trash ranging from bottles to plastic labels that bear foreign and Filipino brands, indicating human impact in the area.
Onda said the mere presence of micro and macro plastics alone is alarming, citing the reported death of marine animals due to ingestion of trash.
"There have been a lot of reports that the dolphins are dying because they ingest plastics and there are a lot of dolphins in the area. The garbage doesn't decrease, if in 10 years that's the environment there, then there's a lot of implication. We don't directly know it yet but it's one thing that we should find out," he said.
In terms of discovery, Onda said the team has noted the presence of some species that have not been reported in the area before.
"These newly reported presences could indicate KIG as an important resource for possibly economically important seaweeds," he said.
"What if these new species have other usages? Biologically, they are serving a certain function in the environment, it keeps it in balance, economically, it means new potential sources of products for the Philippines," he added.
Former Agriculture Secretary William Dar, who also proposed the creation of Department of Fisheries, said malnutrition and poverty still exist in many parts of the country particularly in coastal communities and that small fisherfolk still belong to the "poorest of the poor".
This is because the country's inland and coastal waters are degraded and overfished, and there is "limited" fund for the development of the fishing industry such as the putting up of post-harvest facilities like cold storage facilities, he noted.
Dar said there is also the problem with "restricted" undertaking of research and development (R&D) by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) as in the case of the Philippine Rise (formerly called the Benham Rise), which has the potential that could make the country one of the top exporters of marine products in the world.
"Up to now, the Philippine Rise issue is usually treated from a political standpoint than scientific and economic. If BFAR had enough funds to conduct more R&D on the Philippine Rise, we would have known how much potential that area has economically, and crafted programs to harness the resources there in a sustainable manner," he said.
Dar said the vision and mission of the proposed Department of Fisheries is to harness R&D and science-based solutions to address wide-ranging poverty, especially among small fisherfolk and their communities.
Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem for marine, fisheries, and aquaculture taking sustainability into account is also essential, he said.
"Generating enough supply of both raw and value-added products from the sea and inland waters should (also) be one of the major outputs of the agency’s programs, enabling the country to export more marine products besides supplying the domestic market," he added.
Dar said there is an urgent need to create the Department of Fisheries to arrest the progressive decline of the fish catch of both municipal and commercial fishers; and to protect and rehabilitate the country's coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass and algae beds, which are essential for the fish population to grow.
"We need to have the appropriate fisheries policies, management systems, and institutions in place. Additional efforts to strengthen the management capabilities of LGUs (local government units), NGOs (non-government organizations), and local communities whose participation and cooperation are pivotal in natural resources management," he said.
Better coordination among agencies for the proper enforcement of fisheries rules and regulations also plays an important role in the development of the fisheries sector, he added. (PNA)