Fisheries in WPS will ‘collapse’ if damage to Rozul Reef worsens — maritime law expert

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 18) — Fisheries in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) will “collapse” and will heavily impact the country’s food security if the damage to the Rozul Reef (also known as Iroquois Reef) worsens, a maritime law expert warned on Monday.

Maritime Affairs expert Jay Batongbacal said the damage to the reef could be “a huge blow” on food security as the destroyed area contributes 27% to 30% of the country’s capture fisheries.

“The worst case scenario for us, as a country that depends on marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, is that this will lead to the collapse of fisheries in the area," he told CNN Philippines’ The Source.

“And then ecologically, the bigger threat there is that if this area collapses, the sustainability of other areas, such as the inter-island waters of the Philippines to which the WPS is ecologically and biologically connected, will also suffer,” he added.

Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson for WPS Commodore Jay Tarriela said "severe damage" was inflicted upon the marine environment and coral reef in the seabed of Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal.

According to Tarriela's statement, underwater surveys of the shoals revealed ecosystems that appeared "lifeless, with minimal to no signs of life."

"Moreover, the surveys conducted in Escoda Shoal revealed visible discoloration of its seabed, strongly indicating that deliberate activities may have been undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain," Tarriela added.

Batongbacal warned that if the resources in the WPS are depleted, Chinese fleets “will start looking in the Philippine inter-island waters next.”

“So we could see them intruding even more frequently into the Sulu Sea and into the waters of Visayas etc., looking for these resources. Over the longer term, that is the bigger environmental and ecological threat to us,” he added.

Over the weekend, the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command (Wescom) said the Navy personnel spotted the “suspected damage” during an initial assessment after they drove away Chinese vessels from the reef in July.

The AFP Wescom also reported the “concerning resurgence” of Chinese fishing vessels swarming in parts of WPS, including Rozul Reef.

Batongbacal urged the government to inspect the area and evaluate the extent to which the Chinese have caused damage to the habitat.

“This requires groundrooting. Meaning, somebody has to actually go there and conduct the survey by hand. They will dive and measure,” he added.

He also said the government should expect the same level of damage to other reefs where Chinese vessels were seen anchoring, and should send authorities to document the activities.

The documentation could be used to tie the activities and damages together and be filed as evidence against China if the case reaches litigation on an international level, the maritime law expert noted.

Batongbacal also urged Congress to expedite the passage of a bill declaring the country’s maritime zones, saying this will establish the legal bases for activities that could be conducted in these areas.