Custodians of legacy: Maritime conservationists make waves to protect PH waters

Marine conservationists have stepped up as the stewards of the seas, committed to protecting aquatic life from the greedy hands of corporations.

Humanity has only explored five percent of the ocean’s entirety, yet it’s a wonder how such a body of water already contributes so much to our lives—from being a source of livelihood for many to being a fuel for the advancement of science and technology. The ocean provides sustenance for all living beings.

In turn, the ocean relies on us to protect it. But as humans continue to harvest their resources to the point of exploitation, the health of entire marine ecosystems suffers greatly. Waters become polluted with domestic and industrial wastes, global warming causes drastic changes to the ocean such as sea level rise and marine heatwaves, and overfishing that results in a dwindling population of aquatic foods. Yet, these damages to the environment are only the onset of problems for humans. Our livelihood, health, and communities at large are compromised when the seas are placed in peril.

Recognizing the imminent dangers that our oceans face, marine conservationists dedicate their mission, advocacies, and efforts to saving, preserving, and protecting the marine ecosystems that give life to our people.

Purpose-filled voyage

One thing many environmentalists have in common is their purpose in this field of work. A spokesperson for the Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, Eiren Buenviaje (III, BS BIO-SEC) says that at the heart of her advocacies lies her immense love for the ocean. As a child growing up in Palawan, Buenviaje was able to witness the implications of climate change on marine life and communal livelihood firsthand. It pushed her to strive for climate justice in the name of marine conservation.

Sobrang dami ‘yung hindi natin alam, sobrang dami ‘yung akala natin, and yet we [still] discover something new about it (the ocean). I always [appreciate] that continuous process of learning and finding new things to love,” she explains, smiling fondly.

(There’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so much we thought we already knew.) 

Sharing a similar experience of growing up in an ecologically intact town, marine academic Dr. Carmen Lagman reminisces about her early days and how she was inspired to pursue a career in marine biology. Surrounded by various mentors, books, and the education system of a special science high school, Lagman developed an interest in the sciences, which sparked a passion for marine life and studies, so much so that she continues to encourage her students to pursue the career as well. “My becoming a marine biologist is a mix of circumstances, abilities, and opportunities, which I guess got me to where I am right now,” she expresses.

These experiences serve as stepping stones to an everlasting connection between man and sea that attest to the ocean’s legacy. As such, marine conservation raises its importance in protecting not only the physical aspect of the sea, along with its inhabitants, but also its bearing over various livelihoods, different cultures, and the sense of community it has shaped and built, as seen here in the Philippines.

Imminent danger is upon our oceans and seas, but marine conservationists go above and beyond to fight for aquatic life.

Head above water

However, the seas that encompass the undulating ripples of the country’s heritage and ecology have not been tranquil for some time. Threats to our maritime landscape span cross-cutting areas and disciplines that tender insights into the sociopolitical influences at play. “The biggest threats for fisheries are overexploitation, habitat destruction, and pollution,” Lagman enumerates. Fish habitats are now patchily distributed, hence why there are few natural environments adequate for growth and production.

Sociopolitical upheaval creates outward disturbances that spill over to the maritime domain. “The world is being run by a very aggressive, profit-based system; wala na silang pake kung matatamaan ang kalikasan,” Buenviaje points out. Human activities, specifically the caprices of corporations, accelerate the irreversible effects of climate change. And beyond capitalism-oriented objectives, large corporations exert undue influence over policy-making bodies, which allow them to circumvent laws governing maritime security. Buenviaje asserts that there is a stark disproportion between the ecological transgressions of commercial enterprises and their supposed commensurate sanctions. Inevitably, environmental matters involve political discussions.

(They don’t care about damaging the environment.)

Coastal communities whose livelihoods center around aquatic resources and biodiversity are likewise heavily impacted by threats to our waters. “Those who have depended on those resources have no other options because the habitats are so decimated,” Lagman expounds. While communities have taken to weathering the degradation of marine systems, the reality stands that their livelihood can quickly vanish in the face of the aquatic decline. “The livelihood of the people are marred by loopholes; big corporations are given leeway instead of our fisherfolks,” Buenviaje emphasizes in Filipino.

Glimmers of hope

But not all is lost for our oceans. With more than 1,500 designated marine reserves in the country, the institutional structures to protect our maritime environment still stand. “Protection of marine areas has been one of our biggest strengths on paper,” Lagman notes. “The whole world’s idea of marine protected areas, to establish community-based groups that will actually take care of resources, and to keep aside 15 to 20 percent of your resources to replenish the rest, [were] ideas that came from here (the Philippines).”

In Palawan, Buenviaje cites that the local government conducts training sessions for fisherfolk and considers the seasonality of areas for both farmers and fish. “May mga areas na kino-close off nila. Nagkakaroon ng off-season for fishing just to allow the fish to increase in numbers…it’s [also] to help the farmers have more catch,” Buenviaje explains.

(There are areas that they close off. There is an off-season in fishing…)

Passionate researchers also travel far for marine conservation. Lagman recounts her experience working in the Bohol Sea with renowned Filipino biologist Dr. Angel Alcala, “He’s been able to rally people together with something we call ‘Alcala magic’…he has inspired people to take care of the coral reefs.” To date, the Bohol Sea boasts an exquisite coral reef production, with over 40 protected marine reserves.

Lagman herself has pushed for more sustainable aquaculture through her work, which led to the creation of a tilapia breeding program. “When I was your age, tilapia was not something we ate…but there was this big effort to try to develop better strains,” Lagman explains. “Now everybody sees tilapia, everybody eats it…a lot of people have livelihoods based on it.”

In need of heroes

Still, the journey to protect Philippine seas remains an arduous one. Buenviaje laments that while there are a number of vital projects geared toward the well-being of our seas, budget, and implementation are common problems for many marine reserves and conservation initiatives in the country.

While technology and long-term solutions are key, without what Lagman notes as “the vision and the leadership,” environmental problems and their solutions will remain in the backseat. “There are still champions (advocates), but we need more champions…You have to have new people take the batons,” Lagman proclaims.

In the end, maritime protectors need not be biologists; after all, “the ocean is connected to all aspects of our life,” as Buenviaje reminds. Everyone can demand justice from the biggest polluters and the governments that should keep them in check. “We have to understand that it’s in our very own right to demand for the proper justice,” Buenviaje declares. “Sino ba yung dapat malagot kapag nasira ang kalikasan?

(Who should be accountable when the environment is destroyed?)

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