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Endangered wildlife collateral damage in Spratlys row

MANILA, Philippines—Endangered marine animals have become collateral damage in the long-standing dispute over the Spratlys, an oil-rich group of islands in the South China Sea claimed by six countries including the Philippines, a leading environmental advocate said.

Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief executive officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Philippines, expressed concern over the state of the Spratlys’ marine environment, following reports of heightened military incursions by Philippine and Chinese forces in the area also known as a rich fishing ground.

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“Marine life is another casualty in the Spratlys dispute. I’m concerned about it because it’s a no man’s land, it’s a no man’s sea,” Tan said in an interview.

“Everything that we are worried about is there,” Tan said at Thursday’s launch of a project to save “dugongs” and sea turtles in Davao City. The project was being supported by WWF and Smart Communications.

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Home to endemic marine species, waters surrounding the Spratlys have become a major hunting ground for illegal fishermen and poachers.

Fishermen, particularly from Vietnam and China, have been known to harvest corals and catch whales, sharks and turtles in the area.

Boon to poachers

The territorial dispute and military standoff over the Spratlys would always be a boon to poachers, Tan said.

As long as the ownership of the islands is in question, marine poachers and smugglers would remain slippery from the grasp of law enforcers, he explained.

“Depending on who holds the cards right now, the dominant nation will call the shots and unregulated extraction will continue. Because why should they not continue fishing? Nobody will catch them,” Tan said.

Tan said China’s show of might in the region could only embolden Chinese poachers and pirates who roam the South China Sea for fish and other contraband marine creatures.

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He noted that many of the species caught all over the country end up in China, turtles being a major example.

“They kill them and they stuff them with cotton. They use them as wall decor in Hainan. It’s about who’s got the biggest turtle on the wall,” he said.

Rich eco-region

According to WWF, the Spratlys Islands is a rich eco-region that contains over 600 coral reefs, atolls, rocks, banks and cays in the South China Sea. It is a major habitat for various seabirds as well as green and hawksbill sea turtles.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and China have all claimed ownership on the archipelago, which promises to have rich oil deposits beneath the sea. Over the years, the five countries’ military forces have made forays into the islands and have built naval facilities there.

The Philippine government belatedly learned that Chinese ships unloaded an undetermined number of steel posts and a buoy in the vicinity of the Amy Douglas Bank on May 21 and 24.

The Spratlys territorial dispute was the main topic in the recent meeting between Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie. It was also on the agenda of President Aquino’s visit to Brunei.

The incursions of military personnel in the islands have also degraded the Spratlys, the WWF said.

“Military groups … have engaged in environmentally damaging activities such as shooting turtles and seabirds, raiding nests, and fishing with explosives,” it said in a report on the eco-region.

“The collection of rare medicinal plants and wood and hunting for the wildlife trade are common threats to the biodiversity of the entire region, including these islands. Coral habitats are threatened by pollution, over-exploitation of fish and invertebrates, and the use of explosives and poisons as fishing techniques,” the WWF noted.

Gulf under threat

Davao Gulf is another area that is under threat, the WWF said.

It urged Filipinos to help them protect marine species and mammals, particularly the dugongs and sea turtles, in Davao Gulf, which are besieged by destructive manmade activities.

The organization teamed up with telecommunication giant Smart to allow subscribers to donate as low as P5 to as much as P1,000 to the Davao Gulf conservation program by texting WWF to 4483.

The gulf is a priority area as it has one of the highest marine mammal diversity in the country and is part of the Coral Triangle, the WWF said.

“It is a breeding and nursery ground for small and large pelagic species, with frequent sightings of whale sharks, dugongs, and leatherback turtles. Sadly, Davao Gulf is being threatened by the very economic activities it supports,” Tan said.

The unregulated and intrusive man-made and industrial activities in the gulf have degraded the region, he noted.

“Fish yields have decreased, leading many to adopt destructive fishing methods in order to survive. Turtles are killed for their meats and eggs, while the number of dugongs has dwindled due to boat propeller accidents and fishnet-caused drowning,” Tan said.

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TAGS: Endangered wildlife, illegal fishing, Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, poaching, Smart communications, Spratlys, World Wide Fund for Nature
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