Saving coastal, marine environment through Marine Protected Areas

As part of the Plastic Free July, a global movement that amplifies the call for strengthened efforts to solve the global plastic crisis, ocean conservation advocate nongovernment organization, Oceana Philippines, called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to protect marine protected areas against plastic pollution.

Environmental lawyer Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines, said the country’s marine ecosystems hold immense potential in the efforts to curb the impact of the global food crisis. But the threat of destruction and losses is becoming more pronounced as plastic waste make their way to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that are supposed to be set aside for conservation in different parts of the country.

Sea fans and colorful corals are found in the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park, a renowned diving spot and a Unesco World Heritage site.

Legal basis

MPAs in the Philippines are governed by two major laws, Criselda Castor, focal person for MPAs of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-BMB), told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on July 26.

First is Republic Act 11038, or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, which is the basis for the establishment of MPAs under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) framework.

Second is Republic Act 10654, the basis for the establishment of locally managed MPAs, which are governed by concerned local government units (LGUs).

“Through this law, all LGUs are mandated to apportion 15 percent of their municipal water as a fish refuge or sanctuary, whenever possible,” Castor, also a senior ecosystems management specialist, said.

She said MPAs under the Nipas are administrated or governed by the national government, the DENR-BMB in particular.

“They are relatively large MPAs, covering several hectares and encompassing ecologically rich and unique areas and biologically important public lands that are habitats of rare and threatened species, biogeographic zones and related ecosystems,” Castor said.

Biodiversity-rich islands

A biodiversity-rich archipelago, the Philippines has more reason to protect and conserve its rich marine ecosystem from destructive human activities.

Currently, there are a total of 75 Nipas MPAs, wherein 35 are legislated, five are proclaimed and 35 are initial components.

There are also more than 1,500 locally managed MPAs established around the country.

The DENR-BMB is also pushing for the establishment of networks of MPAs to strengthen the protection and conservation of these biodiversity-rich areas. There are currently 60 established MPA networks in the Philippines.

Besides plastic and microplastic pollution, MPAs are facing persistent threats like encroachment of commercial fishing vessels, destructive and unsustainable fishing practices, unsustainable tourism practices and climate change.

“Sometimes, there is also resistance from the community on the establishment of MPAs and networks because of the initial belief that they will have a smaller area to fish. But this can be addressed by engaging them at the onset and continuous consultation and awareness activities, Castor said.

MPA management tools

According to Castor, locally-managed MPAs use the MPA Management Effectiveness Assessment Tool. At the same time, the Nipas MPAs use the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool (METT).

“There are a number of MPAs that are already doing good in terms of managing their MPAs. However, there are also other Nipas MPAs that need to improve in certain areas of management. Moreover, there is a need to re-evaluate/update the METT scores of our Nipas MPAs to be able to get a better understanding of how effective the management of their MPAs is,” she explained.

The DENR-BMB implements a program called Coastal and Marine Ecosystems Management Program, which is fully funded by the government through the General Appropriations Act.

“Through this program, we are able to strengthen MPAs through scaling up to networks, habitat assessment and monitoring, provision of biodiversity-friendly enterprises, capacity building and social mobilization, among others,” she said.

‘Not a silver bullet’

Sought for comment, the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya), however, expressed doubt that MPAs could actually protect marine resources.

“While we recognize the urgent need to preserve our marine and aquatic resources from various forms of destruction, there is no guarantee that [MPAs] will function as it is. Rather, it may threaten the livelihood of small fisherfolk, who will be deprived to fish within the established MPAs,” Ronnel Arambulo, Pamalakaya national spokesman told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on July 27.

“Marine and aquatic resources deteriorate because of exploitation of large-scale commercial fishing fleets, as well as by government’s approval of destructive projects, such as reclamation and conversion,“ he said.

He said big fishing firms continue to exploit and monopolize the country’s marine and aquatic resources, and no amount of government conservation program could stop this threat to our marine ecosystem.

“What we have been pushing for genuine rehabilitation of aquatic and marine waters is through the massive restoration of mangrove areas and sea grasses, and ultimately end all destructive projects, such as reclamation and conversion. The government must also restrict commercial fishing vessels from entering the 15-kilometer municipal waters intended for small and subsistence fisherfolk,” he pointed out.

Reinforcing protection

Oceana Philippines, however, insisted that MPAs are important because they reinforce the protection of the livelihoods of the country’s fisherfolk and coastal communities, and build the resiliency of the natural ecosystems and the people from the ravaging impacts of climate change.

“We have national laws and local ordinances that establish marine reserves, protected seascapes and fish sanctuaries but we need to have more of them. Thus, Oceana supports the government and stakeholders in having more ecologically and biologically significant marine areas in our country protected,” Ramos told the BusinesMirror via email on July 26.

“The [DENR-BMB] admits that we only have roughly 1 percent of our waters, including exclusive economic zone, protected,” she lamented.

According to Ramos, an effective MPA must be science-based, implements the Enipas Act, Fisheries Code, as amended, and other laws, without fear or favor, and require strong and continuing collaboration not just among Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) members but also with the stakeholders, including the 12 Fisheries Management Areas (FMAs), a legacy of the Duterte administration.

The Management Plan has to be complied with, and for MPAs which are considered sub-groups of the FMAs, it has to be synchronized with the FMA Management Plans and national policies, she explained.

“I hope also the state colleges and universities step up in being active actors in MPA management including monitoring. Fisherfolk also needs strong support from both national and local decision-makers,” Ramos said.

Scientifically recognized

Theresa Mundita S. Lim, executive director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity said that MPAs are a scientifically recognized tool in protecting coastal and marine biodiversity.

She told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on July 27 said that years ago, Asean Biodiversity hero, Dr. Angel Alcala of the Philippines, has already proven through a study of the Apo Island Protected Landscape and Seascape, that a well-managed protected area can yield up to around 125 tons of fish biomass per year.

She noted that Apo Island started as a locally managed no-take marine reserve before it was eventually established as a national protected area.

“Locally managed MPAs definitely contribute to fishery production and complement the benefits derived from effectively managed national marine protected areas. But it is not enough to set aside just a percentage of local waters as MPAs,” she said.

However, Lim, a former DENR-BMB director, said it is more important to identify the appropriate areas to protect, to ensure that they are the rich breeding or foraging grounds for important fishery resources and keystone species.

“Since our oceans and oceanic resources are interconnected, organisms can breed in one area and move across political boundaries to grow, mate, feed and thrive. For us to protect them across all these life stages, and eventually sustainably harness the benefits they can provide [food security, resilient ecosystems, livelihoods], networking of smaller MPAs may be relevant and necessary,” she said.

“In Asean, we are already exploring the declaration of transboundary Asean Heritage Parks based on reliable scientific information on migratory patterns and life cycles of important marine biodiversity,” Lim said.

Image credits: Danny Ocampo

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