An expert in ocean productivity and diversity said that the West Philippine Sea (WPS) faces numerous threats from climate change, extending beyond concerns like reclamations, overfishing, and plastic pollution.

Dr. Laura David, director of The Marine Science Institute at UP Diliman and head of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST)-funded Resource Inventory, Valuation, and Policy in Ecosystems Services Under Threat (Re-INVEST) in the WPS, spoke in a forum on May 13, highlighting the historical data on temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise in the region.

According to her, these data point to significant risks and threats.

“There are things in the WPS that are at risk, and its mainly because of climate change. If you take a look at all historical data of temperature, precipitation, sea level rise—we see that in the WPS, sea level rise is going to be a big deal, and so is a change in the seasonality of rainfall, seasonality of when we expect things to be dry, the seasonality of the monsoons are also changing,” David said.

She pointed out that water temperatures are steadily increasing, with a rise of approximately 0.3 degrees per decade.

This ongoing trend, she stated, poses a significant risk to marine ecosystems in the disputed waters.

David underlined the susceptibility of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves to these environmental changes. She explained that mangroves are particularly vulnerable to the increase in sea levels, while coral reefs are at risk due to temperature fluctuations that can cause bleaching incidents.

Addressing the challenge of mitigating these risks, David outlined three potential outcomes: hazards, vulnerability, and exposure. She noted the difficulty in preventing hazards, as they are direct consequences of climate change.

“Mahirap pigilin si hazard kasi yan na ang climate change. We can do what we can about carbo dioxide mitigation and everything else, pero mahirap na pigilin ang mga mangyayari,” she stated.

However, there is potential to manage exposure to these risks in the WPS.

“Kunyari magtatanim ka ng mangrove, di mo na siya itatanim sa alam mong malulunod siya. Itatanim mo siya a little farther away—yong tatamaan pa rin ng tubig sa high tide, pero hindi yong kapag high tide ay lubog na yong saplings,” she said.

David stressed the significance of creating marine protected areas (MPAs) in the WPS to tackle vulnerability. These designated areas are of utmost importance in preserving marine ecosystems from the effects of climate change and other potential dangers.

“Yon ang value ng marine protected areas. You lessen all the other pressure para mas kayanin niya yong climate change,” she said.

Drawing an analogy to a family with a history of heart disease, she stressed the importance of proactive measures to mitigate risks effectively.

Just as individuals with a family history of heart disease take precautions to avoid heart attacks, the government must implement measures to reduce the risks faced by marine ecosystems, she elaborated.

Threats in WPS
While there are indeed risks that pose significant challenges, there remains an opportunity to address pressing threats, such as overfishing, plastic pollution, and land use.

Shifting to the geopolitical environment, she emphasized the clear and indisputable interest of neighboring countries in the gas resources located in the WPS. However, prior to this geopolitical dispute, she said the primary focus has always been on the crucial function of the WPS in maintaining food supplies.

The importance of this is reinforced by the fact that some 380 million individuals reside in coastal regions adjacent to the South China Sea or the WPS, strongly depending on its resources for their sustenance and livelihoods.

Furthermore, she observed discrepancies in fishing subsidies, where certain countries provide financial incentives to promote fishing techniques, hence worsening worries about overfishing in comparison to the Philippines.

Illustrating the severity of overfishing, she raised how rampant exploitation depletes marine resources.

“So, with that, talagang ubusan ang nangyayari. Overfishing is a big deal,” David remarked.

Adding to the environmental risks, the potential for an oil spill in the WPS looms large, threatening not only the Philippines but also the vital maritime trade routes in the region.

Drawing parallels to past incidents, she referenced the challenges faced during the Verde Island Passage oil spill, highlighting the country’ struggle to contain such disasters. David said the country remains ill-prepared to handle similar crises, particularly if they occur in the ecologically sensitive West Philippine Sea.

She shed light, too, on the pervasive issue of plastic pollution plaguing the WPS. Proximity to specific areas, such as West Palawan, reveals a distressing sight of litter, predominantly comprised of discarded fishing gear, shampoo sachets, and various food wrappers in diverse languages.

“If you take a look at the labels of those, they’re not just in English. They’re in different languages so, that means, they’re coming from all over the South China Sea,” David noted.

Reclamation in the WPS can also harm mangroves, she explained, warning that as land occupation increases, the number of coral reefs that are alive decreases.

“Somebody has to be liable for damages because it’s not just local,” she pointed out.

“Anything that happens in the South China Sea or in the WPS ends up having an impact all over the place,” she added.

West Palawan turns a vibrant red in the heat map, she claimed, because it bears the brunt of the consequences of what occurs in there. If degradation is happening in the WPS, all of the propagules and fish eggs that used to be produced there and should have come to our side are no longer present.

As a result, all of the pollution generated there, including sediment, oil, and plastics, ends up on the Philippines’ side.

Like Dr. Jonathan Anticamara, also of the College of Science at UP Diliman, she said long-term monitoring will help see trends in the WPS.

“We need to be there more frequently and we need to have a strategic plan on how to actually monitor these things. We need to survey more habitats. Not just the corals, but the seagrass, seaweed, beach forest, marine birds.

“We need to increase our research efforts to provide more information of what resources we have in WPS,” she added.

Other disciplines, she added, must also be involved, including talking to fishermen to see what’s going on through their eyes, as well as policymakers.