Triple whammy in our territorial waters

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

It’s bad enough that our Philippine Coast Guard vessels and boats bringing food, water and other supplies to our troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal are continuously being harassed and bullied, our fishermen regularly being prevented from plying their livelihood by Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels – and now, our precious coral reefs in seabeds within our exclusive economic zone are slowly but surely being destroyed.

According to a report filed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command (WesCom) and confirmed by the Philippine Coast Guard that conducted extensive underwater surveys, the marine ecosystems in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal are dying – if not already dead – most likely caused by the illegal and indiscriminate activities of Chinese vessels that have been swarming the areas, resulting in the massive destruction of coral reefs in the aforementioned West Philippine Sea features.

From Aug. 9 to Sept. 11 alone this year, approximately 33 Chinese maritime militia vessels in Rozul Reef and 15 in Escoda Shoal were monitored by the Philippine Coast Guard. Quoting divers who conducted the underwater surveys, WesCom chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said “there is nothing left” of the corals in Rozul Reef, adding that they have been “destroyed, and only debris was there.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that about “25 percent of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs” where “fishes and other organisms shelter, find food, reproduce and rear their young in the many nooks and crannies formed by corals.”  The rich biodiversity found in the habitat created by corals is also the reason why coral reefs are described as the “rainforests of the sea.”

A report published at the MIT Science Policy review in August 2020 disclosed that coral reefs “provide ecosystem services worth $11 trillion annually by protecting coasts, sustaining fisheries, generating tourism and creating jobs across the tropics,” and that as many as one billion people across the planet depend on coral reefs for food, income and coastal protection.

More than 500 species of coral and more than 2,000 species of fish live in the waters of the Philippines, which is part of the most diverse and biologically complex marine ecosystem in the world known as the “Coral Triangle” that covers 5.7 million square kilometers of ocean waters spanning across parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste and the Philippines, according to NOAA.

As early as 2019, Dr. Deo Florence Onda, an oceanographer and professor at the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute, has been warning that the Philippines is losing an estimated P33 billion worth of damage to its reef ecosystem annually, all because of China’s land reclamation activities within our exclusive economic zone.

Aside from illegal fishing activities, Chinese vessels have also been poaching giant clams under the reefs and taking corals and the species therein, which they use as decorative materials, ornaments and jewelry, said maritime law expert Professor Jay Batongbacal.

Videos released by the PCG showed the crushed corals, with “visible discoloration” in the seabed of Escoda Shoal that is indicative of “deliberate activities… undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain,” said PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela.

Not surprisingly, reactions to the videos ranged from shock to sadness to anger over the colossal damage that has been wrought upon our marine ecosystem. But what is even more disturbing – totally infuriating – to many Filipinos is that the destruction of the coral reefs is actually a prelude to land reclamation by the Chinese. In Tagalog, “niluluto tayo sa sariling mantika” (we are being cooked in our own fat) – constructing artificial islands with our own corals. Both Senator Francis Tolentino and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro have warned about this. Intelligence we gathered confirm that these corals are deliberately being crushed, processed and dumped on the seabed.

Since 2013, China has been turning disputed land features in the Spratlys into military bases with ports, runways and other infrastructure. But to use the damaged corals from Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal to make the artificial islands? Absolutely unacceptable.

Support is growing for the filing of cases against China before an international tribunal for the destruction of our corals, and elevating the issue before the UN General Assembly. Calls are also mounting to make China pay billions of pesos not only for the enormous destruction of our coral reefs but for robbing our fisherfolk of their livelihood and threatening the food security of Filipinos.

And for those who continue to make a lot of noise complaining about our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States – wake up! Just think – when the USS Guardian accidentally ran aground on Tubbataha Reef in January 2013, the US paid P87 million for the damage the minesweeper had caused.

China, on the other hand, has built bases in maritime areas that are located within our exclusive economic zone and scoffingly dismisses the destruction of the corals in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal as “political drama.”

So who is being a responsible member of the community of nations, and who is not? As Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla pointed out, “with or without the territorial dispute, the destruction of the environment is a sin against humanity.”

There is absolutely no justification for this type of behavior by the Chinese. We must do all we can and join hands with the international community in putting a stop to these insane activities, and bring everything to its just conclusion.

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Email: [email protected]

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