Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rest for the Visayan Sea

While politicians are talking about restiveness, restlessness and unrest in the political front, those concerned about the environment are talking rest.

A group that calls itself the Visayan Sea Squadron is asking the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to give the Visayan Sea a rest, declare a closed season and determine areas available only for certain types of fishing.

Mayors have also petitioned the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to declare the entire area closed to commercial fishing vessels (three tons and above). These local officials also asked the DENR to work for the declaration of the Visayan Sea as a Unesco World Heritage Site for marine biodiveristy.

According to the Visayan Sea Squadron, an outreach program of the Law of Nature Foundation, the Visayan Sea has an area of about one million hectares. It is ``at the apex of the fabled Visayan Marine Triangle which lies at the very heart of the Sulu-Sulawesi Eco-region.’’

The way this triangle is being described makes one imagine a fantastic water wonderland that exists only in tales of yore. But no, this region is still alive, even if now threatened by depletion and destruction.

The Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Triangle, which covers a wide swath from the Philippines to Indonesia, is supposed to be the richest marine eco-region in the world and is home to the largest variety of marine life—fishes, coral, sea grasses, etc., in the whole world.

In the bosom of the Sulu-Sulawesi Triangle is the Visayan Marine Triangle found in Central Philippines. It is ``the center of the center, the beating heart of marine biodiversity on Earth. At the apex (of this Visayan triangle) is the Visayan Sea, once so rich and seemingly limitless in marine life abundance it was described as the Alaska of the Philippines. If carefully managed, the Visayan Sea alone can feed the entire Filipino people the whole year round.’’

There are 12 eco-regions within this Sulu-Sulawesi area. Two are in Indonesia, 1 is in Malaysia, but according to environment lawyer Tony Oposa, God blessed the Philippines with the balance of nine of the richest marine waters in the world. A scientific finding, he said, identified the Philippine Sea as the ``epicenter’’ of marine bioversity on Earth.

According to Oposa, the Philippine Sea is home to the greatest number and variety of coral reefs and underwater forests. Of the 700 or so coral species found in the whole world, 500 are in the Philippines. A single coral garden dive site in Anilao, Batangas and a single marine sanctuary in Bantayan Island in Cebu, both with a total area of 10 hectares have more variety of corals than what could be found in the entire Carribean put together.

The Visayan Sea has undergone massive, unregulated, destructive fishing activities that degraded its ecological richness. Some species of fish are supposedly facing extinction.

And so the plea from the NGOs and local officials mainly from Iloilo, Negros and Cebu. Those who signed the petition and resolution pledged to participate and cooperate with one another in self-assessment for environmental compliance audit, total eradication of illegal and destructive fishing and identify main areas of interest. They also asked that a Philippine Navy gunboat be permanently assigned in the triangle.

The letter of the Visayan Sea Squadron legal enforcement team headed by Gloria Estenzo Ramos to DENR and the Department of Agriculture said that because of the Visayan Sea’s degraded condition, it should be made to ``rest’’ and ``recuperate’’ from intensive fishing activities, especially by vessels weighing more than three gross tons (as cited in the Fisheries Code or Republic Act 8550).

The plea is based on the legal provision which states that ``The Secretary may declare a closed season in any Philippine waters (lying) outside the boundary of municipal waters for conservation and ecological purposes.

During this closed season, these government agencies should determine the maximum sustainable yield of the Visayan Sea and determine areas available for certain types of fishing. Fishing permits should then be issued based on area and on maximum sustainable yield pursuant to the Fisheries Code.

The Code clearly states that ``The Department of Agriculture shall issue such number of licenses and permits for fishery activities subject to the limits of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Preference shall be given to resource users in the local communities adjacent or nearest to the municipal waters.’’

This provision, Oposa said, seems to have languished in the sickbed of non-compliance, and it is time to tickle it into action.

From March 19 to June 24 this year, the Visayan Sea Squadron will do a marine survey of municipal waters. BFAR directors of Regions 5, 6 and 7 have reportedly cooperated.

Here on dry land, we await with eagerness the Earth Day celebration that has the participation of newly installed cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, archbishop of Manila. Rosales has distanced himself from the political arena to which a number of his fellow bishops have been drawn. This ``greenie’’ red hat who is not exactly a greenhorn, would rather concentrate on resurrecting the earth than be drawn into politics.

Earth Day is on April 22, the Saturday after Easter. The theme ``Mea Culpa: A Call for Repentance and Atonement’’ sounds lenten to me but Odette Alcantara of Mother Earth-Philippines explained that it leads to hope and resurrection. What better venue for the celebration than Smokey Mountain, a garbage dump no more.