Speech: Coral Reefs of the Asia-Pacific: Working Together Amidst Contemporary Challenges

June 4, 2018

Speech of Senator Loren Legarda
4th Asia Pacific Coral Reef Symposium
Coral Reefs of the Asia-Pacific: Working Together Amidst Contemporary Challenges
June 04, 2018 | Marco Polo Plaza Cebu

There is no question that marine biological diversity is enormously important for the Philippines and the rest of the world. Our country, being an archipelago located within the coral triangle, is blessed with a very rich biodiversity. We have one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems, characterized by extensive coral reefs, sea grass beds and dense mangroves.

As reported in the 2016 Philippines’ Fisheries Profile of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the Philippines ranked 9th among the major fish-producing countries in the world in 2015 with a total production of 4.5 million metric tons of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and other aquatic plants. [1]

Our country takes pride in having the second largest coral reef environment in Southeast Asia, which is home to a diverse number of species. According to BFAR, the estimated 26,000 square kilometers of coral reef area of the Philippines holds 915 reef fish species and more than 400 scleractinian coral species, 12 of which are identified endemic to the Philippine waters.[2]

Reefs play a crucial role for the continuity of life in the sea. They protect coastlines and stabilize mangroves and seagrass beds from strong waves and destructive effects of tropical storms. More importantly, they serve as nurseries and habitats of marine species, where fish spawn before going to the open sea.

We need our seas for us to live, for us to sustain our basic needs and for us to improve the nation’s growth and development. Unfortunately, our overdependence on our seas, on our natural environment, has greatly contributed to the worsening state of the country’s marine ecosystems, which has not only led to the extinction of marine species, but has also been detrimental to the state of the environment, of the sources of our food supply, livelihood and even related industries such as tourism and trade.

This makes our responsibility to protect our oceans and our reefs even greater to mitigate the effects of marine ecosystem degeneration and coral reef bleaching and destruction.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, the Philippines is one of the top sources of plastic trash dumped into the sea, contributing 2.7 million metric tons of plastic waste and half a million metric tons of plastic-waste leakage per year.[3]

Aside from the worsening case of marine litter, one of the main challenges is the extensive damage to the coral reef systems due to the rising sea surface temperature and ocean acidification.

Extreme heat results in coral bleaching, which then leads to the destruction of coral reefs, that would ultimately mean diminishing fish population, lower fish catch and lower protein intake for the people. It cannot be denied therefore that climate change is one of the factors of ecosystem degeneration.

Now, how do we address the challenges in conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity?

We already have ongoing programs in our countries and in the ASEAN region on coastal and marine biodiversity and management, which have been contributing to efforts to ensure sustainable fisheries through various approaches such as protecting, conserving and rehabilitating habitats, supporting growth in the agriculture and fisheries sector, and building adaptive capacities of coastal communities and resilience of natural systems. Among these programs is the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF).[4]

Moreover, the Philippine Government implements the Sustainable Coral Reef Ecosystem Management Program (SCREMP 2012 – 2020), a national program on the protection and rehabilitation of coral reef ecosystems through a strategic, sustainable and ecosystem-based approach.

We also have the RA 9003, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Law, which promotes a clean and healthy environment through segregation of waste at source, recycling and composting. By mandating the establishment of zero waste programs in all local governments, we had hoped to minimize wastes that end up in our water systems, into the rivers and out in the sea.

In the Philippines, several cities have led the way in proving that zero waste solutions are cost effective, accessible and doable. One of the examples is the system developed by San Fernando City, Pampanga in partnership with eco-waste pioneer Mother Earth Foundation (MEF).

In 2013, the city hired “eco-aides” or trash pickers to collect trash and to monitor waste segregation at each household. They were trained to coach the non-compliant communities on segregation. The city government provided them used tricycles and pushcarts for daily collection, effectively reducing truck collection to only twice per week. For this system to work, the city ensured that each of its 35 barangays had a well-functioning materials recovery facility (MRF).  They had the highest waste diversion rate of 78%.

As of last year, 2017, over 10,000 MRFs were reported all over the country. These were established to reduce, collect, compost and recycle, waste that would otherwise end up polluting both land and sea.

Support for the implementation of RA 9003, through the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC), not only by the national and local government units has been growing. We definitely welcome collective global action for ocean clean up. Scientific studies conducted to understand and characterize marine litter in various gyres are important for finding solutions to reduce its quantity and deadly impacts on marine life.

Moreover, we have the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 that prioritizes the management, conservation and protection of fisheries and aquatic resources. The law provides a legal basis for the conservation and protection of the ocean and ensures the judicious utilization and management of the marine life on a sustainable basis. Under the Fisheries Code, a ban is imposed on the exploitation and exportation of corals as well as the fishing and taking of any rare, threatened and endangered species.

One of the major challenges in this area that the Philippines has to deal with is the rampant illegal poaching in the high seas, especially within the Moro Gulf and the Sulu Sea.

Illegal poaching has for many years caused severe damage to the seabed and the coral reefs, pollutes the sea and kills hundreds of marine species, thus affecting the balance of marine biodiversity.

A damage of this magnitude could be prevented with strict implementation of the law and for this, we rely strongly on our law enforcement agents from the Department of Agriculture, the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police, the LGUs and other law enforcement agencies.

Another measure aimed at strengthening climate adaptation mechanisms and conserving biodiversity pending in the Senate, is the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act or ENIPAS, which is now pending the approval of  the President, for it to finally become a law.

Despite the enactment of the NIPAS Act in 1992, the protection of many protected areas existed only in paper. Many important ecosystems remained under-protected, including open seas, coastal areas, wetlands and tropical forests.

The proposed ENIPAS Law will secure the remaining protected areas in the country by strengthening access to funding for protection programs as well as the prosecution of prohibited acts.   Among the protected areas that will benefit from this law are the coral reef sanctuaries, such as the Tubattaha Reef.

Meanwhile, as part of our commitment with the international community to protect marine ecosystems, the Philippines recently acceded to several international agreements, such as the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas; the Port State Measures Agreement, which is the first binding international agreement to specifically target illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships; and the MARPOL Protocol, which prevents and minimizes pollution from ships by setting limits on sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from ship exhausts, which are harmful to human health, and prohibits deliberate emissions of ozone depleting substances.

With recent reports on the worsening marine litter, I intend to file important measures to promote a circular economy, in which resources are used for as long as possible and the use of non-renewable resources is minimized, as well as to ban the use of microplastics.

Microplastics are small plastic pieces that can easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean, posing threat to the aquatic life and human health.[5] The most used type of microplastics are microbeads that are usually found in cosmetic and hygiene products, such as cleansers, toothpaste and shampoo.

The United States has already passed a Microbead-Free Waters Act; Canada has banned products with plastic microbeads in their market; and, the United Kingdom has officially banned the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

It is now time for the Philippines to implement the same law. Banning microplastics and single-use plastics will help reduce wastage and may lead us to veer away from a throwaway culture, because the waste that we produce, unless minimized and managed properly, will find its way into our oceans and will affect both marine and human life.

But laws alone are not enough; it is most important that these laws are implemented efficiently and effectively. Thus, I am calling on local government units to exercise its crucial role in the strict implementation and enforcement of existing relevant laws concerning conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity.

I urge the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to work closely with the BFAR and academic institutions, such as the UP Marine Science Institute, Silliman University, and University of San Carlos in Cebu, to come up with programs for marine conservation and coral rehabilitation , as well as with the Philippine Coast Guard for stricter law enforcement.

I am also calling on our friends and neighbors in the international community who are here today. The seas and oceans around us serve as the bridge that connect all of us. As one of the global commons, we share not only its bounty but in the duty to keep it clean and thriving.  An ecosystems approach therefore towards a more holistic, multi-sectoral, integrated and sustainable management of our marine environment and resources will be much more beneficial to our communities and countries. Continents may separate us but we are nations living in one planet. Conservation and the sustainable use of marine biodiversity should not be a burden on individual countries alone. We need to unite towards the protection of our oceans and the responsible use of marine resources.

In closing, I wish to emphasize that marine life is vital to support human life. Our lives are linked closely to the ocean and the rich marine resources that it yields. We must act now and work together to find the much-needed balance in using the resources of our oceans and protecting its biodiversity to ensure that it benefits us in a sustainable manner.

This marine ecosystem, the corals that sustain the lives of the marine species, when destroyed today will not just grow overnight. Destroying coral reefs is stealing the homes of marine life organisms and it is just like compromising the resource needs of our future generation.

Let us work hand in hand to bring back our coral reefs and the entire marine ecosystem to its once pristine and abundant condition so that marine life will not lose its home, our marine biodiversity will remain sustainable, and both the present and future generations will continue to benefit from our natural resources.

Thank you very much and good morning.

[1] “Philippine Fisheries Profile 2016.” Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). 2016. https://www.bfar.da.gov.ph/publication.jsp?id=2363#post (accessed May 31, 2018)

[2] “Philippine Coral Reefs.” Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)https://www.bfar.da.gov.ph/habitat.jsp?id=4 (accessed May 31, 2018)

[3] “Stemming the Tide: Land-based Strategies for a plastic-free ocean.” Ocean Conservancy.(2015) https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/full-report-stemming-the.pdf (accessed May 31, 2018)

[4]5th National Report to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) 2014


[5] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)