House OKs bill declaring Panaon Island a protected area
MANILA, Philippines—In a landmark move echoing a commitment to marine conservation, lawmakers approved the bill — on its third and final reading — declaring 60,000 hectares of waters surrounding Panaon Island in Southern Leyte as a protected seascape.
House Bill (HB) No. 9396, or the proposed “Panaon Island Protected Seascape Act,” was approved on Nov. 29 with 257 members of the House of Representatives voting in the affirmative. No legislator abstained or voted against the bill.
The bill seeks to declare the island a protected area with the category of protected seascape under Republic Act (RA) No. 11038 or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act (ENIPAS).
According to RA No. 11038, protected seascapes refer to “areas of national significance which are characterized by the harmonious interaction of man and land while providing opportunities for public enjoyment through recreation and tourism within the normal lifestyle and economic activity of these areas.”
The bill, principally authored by Southern Leyte Representatives Christopherson Yap and Luz Mercado, has 106 co-authors, including Speaker Martin Romualdez and Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, Jr.
Protecting island’s diverse ecosystems
The Panaon Island Protected Seascape covers the municipalities of Liloan, San Francisco, Pintuyan, and San Ricardo in the province of Southern Leyte. It has an area of about 61,204 hectares or 612.04 square meters and is home to over 50,000 people who depend mainly on harvesting coconut and fishing for their livelihood.
Often referred to as a “coral-rich paradise,” Panaon is within the “Coral Triangle” — an area described by Oceana, an international group dedicated to ocean protection and conservation, as a region of high biodiversity spanning multiple countries in the western Pacific Ocean.
According to Oceana, Panaon has up to 60 percent very good coral cover, which is way above the national average of just 20 percent.
The island is also a sanctuary for over 250 species of hard and soft corals and provides a habitat for endangered species recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, including whale sharks and sea turtles.
Once HB No. 9396 becomes law, it will introduce strong measures to protect the diverse ecosystems in the area. This includes creating a management plan and enforcing rules against overfishing, illegal fishing, and habitat destruction.
The law will also support sustainable tourism and livelihood on Panaon Island, balancing economic development with environmental conservation.
“National agencies, local government units, Fisheries Management Area 8 Management Body, non-government organizations, community leaders, artisanal fisherfolk, and citizens have rallied behind the Panaon Island Protected Seascape bills filed at the House of Representatives and the Senate,” said lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana vice president.
Coral reefs found in Panaon Island teeming with fishes that are also enjoyed by tourists and help secure the food and livelihood of the people. Photo contributed by Danny Ocampo, Oceana
“Their unwavering support is crucial in highlighting the importance of preserving the natural beauty and ecological balance of Panaon Island,” she added.
“The passage of the bill at the HoR is a testament that through collaborative efforts, we can achieve more in protecting our vital marine ecosystems for the present and future generations. We are looking forward to the passage of the counterpart bill on Panaon Island in the Senate,” Ramos continued.
The organization has described the recent passage of HB No. 9396 as a “significant stride to safeguard the rich marine biodiversity” of the island.
Pass bills to protect Panaon
Oceana has been urging Congress to pass the bill declaring Panaon Island as a protected seascape to ensure that the island’s rich biodiversity is protected and preserved.
“We call for the urgency of the measure as we race against time in achieving the targets and, more importantly, in preserving the integrity of the natural life support system that our coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses, and wetlands provide,” lawyer Rose Liza Eisma-Osorio, Oceana acting vice president and legal and policy Director previously said.
“The destruction of these invaluable havens for the people and wildlife persists and will get worse if we continue to lay back and take our own sweet time taking action,” she added.
Aside from HB No. 9396, other proposed measures have also been filed by other lawmakers seeking to declare Panaon as a protected seascape.
In the Senate, Senator Cynthia Villar, head of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, filed a corresponding bill, Senate Bill 1690, titled the “Panaon Island Protected Seascape Act of 2023.”
“With Senator Villar at the helm of efforts to protect Panasonic Island in the Senate,” Oceana said, “Panaon Island will soon have the management mechanisms that will pave the way for a truly resilient and healthy ecosystem that provides a rich source of nutrients, sustenance, and livelihood for its people while mitigating the impacts of climate change.”