May is the time of the year when summer is in full swing, when most Filipinos flock to the beach, or go to remote island destinations still under the radar of travel magazines. After all, we are a nation of more than 7,107 picturesque islands.

The sea is the heart that keeps our nation alive. As an archipelago, the Philippines is regarded as the astonishing ‘center of the center of global marine biodiversity'. Photo © Steve De Neef/Greenpeace
The sea is the heart that keeps our nation alive. As an archipelago, the Philippines is regarded as the astonishing ‘center of the center of global marine biodiversity'. Photo © Steve De Neef / Greenpeace.

The sea is the heart that keeps our nation alive. Being an archipelago and regarded as the astonishing ‘center of the center of global marine biodiversity’, more than half of our cities and municipalities are found in coastal areas that are heavily reliant on the bounty of healthy seas for sustenance and income.

It was in 1999, when then President Joseph Estrada— through Presidential Proclamation No. 57— affirmed the ecological importance of Philippine Seas, declaring the month of May as Month of the Ocean. The proclamation mandates the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, to spearhead the observance, in collaboration with the different sectors of society, to conduct activities that shall highlight the conservation, protection and sustainable management of Philippine coastal and ocean resources.

In Bicol, a single illegal commercial fishing boat can rob 70 small municipal fishers of potential fish catch. If we can just take out even one illegal commercial boat from the sea, it would mean an additional 729 kilograms per day or 175 metric tons per year of potential fish catch which can be shared by municipal fisherfolk. Photo © Pat Roque / Greenpeace
In Bicol, a single illegal commercial fishing boat can rob 70 small municipal fishers of potential fish catch. If we can just take out even one illegal commercial boat from the sea, it would mean an additional 729 kilograms per day or 175 metric tons per year of potential fish catch which can be shared by municipal fisherfolk. Photo © Pat Roque / Greenpeace


However, despite this national effort, we are continually losing our unique national heritage at an alarming rate: reclamation projects continue to receive ‘environmental compliance certificates’ that end up destroying sea grasses, corals, and critical coastal ecosystems; there is the continued practice of dynamite fishing by fishermen desperately trying to make a living; and worst of all, many of us treat our seas as one giant garbage bin.

It has become more obvious that we need to do more than just highlight the need to conserve and sustainably utilize our marine resources.

At the start of 2015, historic milestones were set in the name of our oceans and seas. At the UN level, upon the leadership of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, we were able to broker an agreement to come up with a new binding agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) to protect the world’s oceans, including all the marine resources.

A few months, trade warnings against unsustainable fishing from the European Union helped put the pressure on government agencies to amend the outdated Fisheries Code of 1998, now with more legal muscle to curb illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. This was a huge victory for fishing communities and various civil society organizations who have long called on the government to take action and take the side of the marginalized fisherfolk who end losing so much against big commercial fisheries.

And just a couple of days ago— and after 8 long years— the Supreme Court sided with the environment and upheld people’s rights to a healthy and balanced ecology by declaring oil drilling in the protected seas of Tañon Strait as unconstitutional. This was a landmark decision where the court affirmed the validity of the case, which was filed by fisherfolk and by marine mammals (yes, including dolphins) of Tañon Strait.

Central to all of these victories is the untiring role of various civil society organizations, scientists, well-meaning individuals and organized coastal communities in shaping radical approaches to address the problem of overfishing and marine ecosystems decline. These local efforts have resulted in the reduction of destructive commercial fishing efforts, allowed fish populations to bounce back, created successful marine protected areas and halted destructive development practices such as oil drilling, off-shore mining and reclamation projects.

These successful endeavors, led by community stakeholders, should not remain at the fringes and should be nationally institutionalized by the government by integrating them in developing policies that are responsive to the national and global current situation of fisheries and oceans decline.

Early morning activity in the world renowned fish port of General Santos city in Mindanao, which boasts of their wide array of fish catch but especially the Yellow-fin tuna that garnered the attention of the region's biggest producers of fish products due to its quality. Photo © Veejay Villafranca/Greenpeace
Early morning activity in the world renowned fish port of General Santos city in Mindanao, which boasts of their wide array of fish catch but especially the Yellow-fin tuna that garnered the attention of the region's biggest producers of fish products due to its quality. Photo © Veejay Villafranca/Greenpeace

It is therefore critical that the Aquino administration immediately implement the Roadmap to Recovery that fisherfolk groups, Greenpeace and other NGOs delivered at Malacañang last year, to challenge President Aquino to rehabilitate and transform Philippine seas and make it his legacy. We also call on various government agencies to get their acts together and allocate important resources to hasten efforts to save our seas.

Ending the crisis at sea is a herculean task that also requires the general public to come together and play a more proactive role in saving Philippine seas.

All of us—no matter which socio-demographic we belong to— have a duty to perform when it comes to protecting our natural environment, especially our seas which provide the very air we breathe.

We should stop trashing our seas, and as tourists we should be smart enough not to buy shell products, dried starfish, or even take home sand. For those who want to do more, try booking yourself in a zero-carbon resort.

We are powerful as consumers and we can contribute greatly in ending illegal commercial fishing by demanding that all fish being sold in various supermarkets strictly comply with government regulations on fish sizes - this means no juvenile tuna and the like. We can further ask seafood retailers and restaurants to adopt a sustainable and fisherfolk-friendly procurement policies to ensure that the fish are legally and sustainably caught.

The oceans should be everyone's concern. We need to take action to conserve and protect what's left of our marine resources to ensure that in years to come our children can still enjoy clean sea, teeming with life. Photo © Steve De Neef/Greenpeace
The oceans should be everyone's concern. We need to take action to conserve and protect what's left of our marine resources to ensure that in years to come our children can still enjoy clean sea, teeming with life. Photo © Steve De Neef/Greenpeace

As we continue to make summer plans and enjoy our fine beaches, may we be reminded of the need to work together and do more for our seas, to reverse the further decline and degradation of our marine ecosystems. It cannot be overemphasized that our very survival depends on it.

Vince Cinches is the Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines.