A fisheries expert says more Filipino fishermen and fishing companies need to fish in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) so other nations claiming certain parts will not frequent the area and deplete its aquatic resources.

The continuing dispute in the WPS, in which China, Vietnam, and Malaysia claim certain features, is the reason why fishing companies choose to fish on the country’s Eastern coast instead.

Local researchers studying the area’s aquatic resources are also hampered by the ongoing dispute, according to Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) assistant director and marine expert Drusila Esther Bayate in a webinar series on the WPS hosted by the Area Task Force-West on September 22.

The screenshot from the WPS 101 webinar series shows the number of registered fisherfolk dependent on the fishery resource in the West Philippine Sea. In MIMAROPA region, around 99,175 fisherfolks rely on the fishery resource in the disputed region.

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Bayate said her agency has been working to incentivize local fishing companies to start venturing again in the area so that foreign fishermen do not illegally fish there.

“Kailangang maibalik natin sila doon, kasi lalong magiging agresibo ang mga hindi Pilipino diyan, kung wala nang mga Pilipinong mangingisda. Akala nila free-for-all na lang sa kanila, that’s why it is the advice of the national security adviser ng National Task Force (on the West Philippine Sea) na kailangan nilang mangisda doon. Huwag nating pabayaan na kaunti na lang ang mga Pilipino doon at mas marami ang mga Vietnamese, mga Intsik. Siyempre lugi tayo doon, atin ‘yon eh,” she said.

Due to the continuing security concerns in the WPS, Bayate stated that fishing corporations, mainly from Navotas, have lately chosen to fish in the Pacific Ocean instead. These threats have been labeled “bullying,” especially by Chinese ships that have begun frequenting the WPS.

According to her, they have worked with the coast guard to offer some kind of security for the commercial boats.

“Kinakausap namin sila, kung puwede silang bumalik [sa WPS]. Nag-start kami with the small and medium scale commercial vessels, kasi sila ngayon ang agresibong nangingisda on that side. Sinasamahan din sila ng mga patrol boat ng Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) para naman may nagtitingin-tingin sa kanila,” she added.

Coral reefs under threat
Apart from fisheries, coral reefs are also endangered as a result of China’s artificial island construction. Bayate’s presentation showed that coral reefs in the WPS have a monetary worth of $350,000 per hectare each year.

She went on to say that they are continuously threatened by China’s construction of artificial islands. The WPS also protects almost a third of the Philippines’ reefs.

“Most of these reefs are in the Kalayaan Islands Group (KIG). And the KIG is also a source of fish larvae for neighboring reef systems along Western Palawan coasts,” she explained.

Bayate explained that protecting the WPS, especially those that were ruled to be in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines in the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, are areas where “seafood spends their larval stage”.

“It is not only our concern to protect the resources there, but we hope that all countries bordering this shallow basin understand that the fish that they catch all start here in the WPS,” she added.

Research difficulties
Bayate explained that it is also difficult to conduct research on the state of the aquatic and economic resources in the WPS because of the ongoing conflict with China. She cited the most recent study on fish larvae conducted by the UP Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) had to be done with government support, particularly with the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) and the Area Task Force (ATF) West.

“Itong mga surveys natin lately were with the support of the NTF-WPS and ATF-West. Alam talaga ng mga colleagues natin sa ATF-West how difficult it is to run a research survey, to run an expedition there due to the security issues,” she explained.

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is a senior reporter for Palawan News who covers politics, education, environment, tourism, and human interest stories. She loves watching Netflix, reading literary fiction, and listens to serial fiction podcasts. Her favorite color is blue.