House panel okays Kalayaan Islands as marine protected area

Published January 25, 2023, 3:37 PM

by Raymund Antonio

A committee in the House of Representatives has approved a measure seeking to designate certain areas in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as marine protected areas.

An aerial view of the Pag-asa Island in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea. (Associated Press)

During its meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 25, the House Committee on Natural Resources passed House Bill (HB) No. 6373, which declared as Marine Protected Areas (MPA) the area three-nautical miles surrounding the KIG and Scarborough Shoal.

The measure, authored by Palawan 3rd District Rep. Edward Hagedorn, was approved by lawmakers to protect the country’s marine resources in the area.

According to the bill, as per local studies, the three-nautical miles area (roughly 10 square kilometer) will give safe and protected habitat space for young marine organisms.

CIBAC Party-List Rep. Bro. Eddie Villanueva, who sponsored HB 6373, said the proposed bill aims to protect the marine environment – particularly in the Kalayaan Islands – which is situated within the country’s exclusive economic zones.

“Fishes and marine life breed in the coral reefs of Kalayan Islands and the eggs and fingerlings are carried by sea currents to other parts of the country’s seascapes where they thrive, grow, and are eventually caught by fishermen. Coral reefs are the breeding ground or the ‘nursery’ of marine life,” he noted in his sponsorship speech.

He cited the Marine Science Institute study of the University of the Philippines (UP) in 2019 that showed that coral reefs in the Pag-asa Island, Panata Island, and Sabina Shoal were already damaged by illegal activities such as blast fishing.

A 2014 study by the Asian Development Bank also showed that the Kalayaan Islands comprise 30 percent of the country’s total coral reefs and serve as breeding ground of fishes and marine species in the country.

“If reefs are destroyed, we nip marine life at its bud. Thus, to allow the destruction of the coral reefs in Kalayaan Islands will adversely impact fish production in the country and in several adjacent countries,” Villanueva said.

Local marine experts earlier proposed to declare the Kalayaan Islands as MPAs in order to protect the coral reefs therein.

If passed into law, any activities will be prohibited and penalized within the waters of the three-nautical mile area to ensure the protection of marine habitat.

However, Villanueva clarified that the bill will still allow traditional fishing as it is considered generally harmless to the marine ecosystem.

The measure will also create a Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal Protected Area Management Office (KIGSS-PAMO) and a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee to ensure its effective implementation of the provisions.

“We acknowledge that there are tensions relating to territory claims in the West Philippine Sea. However, we cannot afford not to act because the habitat of marine life in our waters, which benefit not only the Philippines but also the adjacent countries lika Chine, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, are being destroyed,” he said.

Villanueva, who also chairs the House Committee on Sustainable Development Goals, pressed the need to protect the biological productivity of the Kalayaan Islands “in order to sustain our ever-increasing demand for marine produce.”

During the hearing, representatives from different government agencies including the Department of National of Defense (DND) expressed support to HB 6373.