The rape of our seas
() - May 29, 2011 - 12:00am

So many environmentalists were dismayed and astounded at the recent report about the interception of thousands of black corals and hundreds of sea turtles and other endangered marine species worth more than P35 million that poachers tried to smuggle out of the country. The fact that an estimated 7,000 hectares of reef complex  almost twice the size of Metro Manila  was obliterated simply is mind boggling. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, contraband corals including those recently intercepted in Cebu and the involvement of international syndicates in this kind of smuggling has been going on for decades.

Obviously, nobody has been able to curb the rape of our seas because no one is watching. The fact of the matter is, the laws in this country impose such puny fines and very light jail terms (a maximum of two years imprisonment and a fine of P20,000 for possession, selling or export of corals whether in raw or processed form)  definitely not enough deterrent for big-time smugglers earning billions from the illicit trade. The worldwide demand for coral-accented jewelry and fashion accessories has grown rapidly over the years.

With the Philippines having one of the longest coastlines in the whole world, even longer than that of the United States, we need an effective coast guard to protect the integrity of our seas, enforce maritime laws and ensure environmental marine protection. But how can our coast guard effectively do its job given its very limited resources like five helicopters (two of them grounded), several (mostly old) vessels and 6,000 personnel?

The “modernization” has been a long time coming. At least the approval for the purchase of new helicopters has been made, but this took more than a decade to accomplish. Fortunately, the strengthened mandate of the Philippine Coast Guard via RA 9993 or the Philippine Coast Guard Law of 2009, the acquisition of six new EC 145 choppers slated this year plus the Hamilton class cutter from the US will boost the effectiveness of the PCG, but it will take more than firepower and machines to stop the rape of our seas. The education of people, particularly residents in coastal communities on the importance of marine life for our survival, is equally important.

Coral reefs are a lot like underwater rainforests that provide food and shelter to thousands of marine species, and are a source of medical compounds for medicines like the AIDS drug AZT. As many as 3,000 species of marine life can feed on one single reef. According to experts, the Philippines has an estimated 27,000 square kilometer of coral reefs, two-thirds of which are located in Palawan and Sulu. As a matter of fact, many scientists have declared the Philippines as the world’s center of marine biodiversity, even more breathtaking than the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. A report by the Washington-based World Resources Institute placed the total economic contribution of our reefs at $1.1 billion per year in terms of tourism and employment generated, as well as a source of food for millions of Filipinos.

Sadly however, these precious “biological wonders” have been slowly dying over the last three decades, with the Philippines now a coral reef “hot spot” or one of the most threatened in the world. Most are now very badly damaged with only five percent found to be in excellent condition according to Reef Check, a California-based organization monitoring reef health in 82 countries. Aside from smuggling, a lot of the destruction happening to our marine resources is caused by pollution from inter-island vessels throwing their garbage off the waters of Batangas and other areas, and accidents like what happened recently when a Panama-registered ship loaded with coal rammed a coral reef area in Kiamba, Sarangani (for which the DENR is demanding P42 million in compensation).

Scientific experts point to rapid population growth as a major cause of the degradation, with the added pressure on habitats plus the reclamation of coastal areas to construct more homes to accommodate the growing number of people. Fish production will also continue to go on a decline simply because there are more people now catching and consuming fish faster than the seas can replenish them  exacerbated by destructive dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing (an inexpensive but lethal method by squirting crushed cyanide pellets into reef crevices where the fish hide) and muro-ami netting, similar to the “sudsud” method where fishermen pound corals and lead the scared fish to waiting nets. Even normal fishing gear like nets and fish traps have destructive effects on corals through direct physical damage upon contact with corals.

It is so sad to see this country  blessed with one of the most abundant and productive ecosystems on earth through its coral reefs  cursed with idiotic people who neither realize the value of these resources nor understand the importance of preserving and conserving them. Those of us who have travelled extensively to many parts of the world can truly say that nothing can compare with what we have in this country in terms of natural beauty and resources. 

Though we may not see nor hear it, our seas are crying out for help because of its relentless rape and desecration  reminding me of an email I received from this poor woman who had been repeatedly raped by her own father. She wrote: “I cannot thank you enough for helping me, but the pain remains. Every time I look out the window, I would see raindrops. But actually, it’s the tears in my eyes.”

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