The persistent territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has become one of the most prominent issues in recent years. This issue has resonated beyond national borders and has captured global attention.

Recognized as the Philippines’ future, WPS holds great importance, offering bountiful resources and capable of boosting the country’s economy and contributing significantly to food security.

Asis Perez, senior advisor of Tanggol Kalikasan, a non-profit and non-governmental organization involved in public interest environmental advocacy in the Philippines, cited the WPS as “very important for food security, as about 70 to 80 percent of the galunggong supplied to Metro Manila comes from that area. It is also one of the migratory spots of tuna in the country.”

Diverse wealth of the West Philippine Sea

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, WPS contributed approximately 7.2 percent to the total fisheries production and 10.8 percent to the total food fish production in the Philippines between 2018 and 2022. Filipino fisherfolk depend on WPS for livelihood and sustenance, with most of them from Ilocos, Central Luzon, MIMAROPA, and some parts of NCR.

The rich coral reef ecosystems of the WPS serve as habitats and breeding grounds for numerous fish species, contributing to its diversity and abundance.

A sustainable management framework is needed to preserve the biodiversity of the WPS and ensure the continued bounty that the country benefits from. However, achieving this requires comprehensive research to assess the diversity of these species and determine the extent of management required.

NFRDI’s research in West Philippine Sea

To explore and study the economic potential of WPS, the DA-NFRDI, in close collaboration with DA-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), conducted Marine Scientific Research (MSR) in the islands of Pagasa, Parola, Likas, Lawak and Patag, Recto and Nares banks, Sabina Shoal and Rizal Reef of Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).

The NFRDI team were composed of Valeriano Borja, Luz Romena, Marvin Tobias, Renalyne Acosta, James Lee Abad, and Noimie Rose Dicdiquin of the Capture Fisheries Research and Development Division. The team gathered and morphologically identified fish species in WPS. The species collected were then categorized into commercial and reef fishes.

Results of the NFRDI study titled, “Reef fishes in the West Philippine Sea” showed that 71 fish species belonging to the following family group were found and considered as reef fishes in the West Philippine Sea. These were: Acanthuridae, Balistidae, Holocentridae, Chaetodontidae, Scaridae, Mullidae, Serranidae, Monacanthidae, Zanclidae, Malacanthidae, Pomacanthidae, Pomacentridae, Ostraciidae, Tetraodontidae, Diodontidae, Nemipteridae, and Lutjanidae.

Among these, 12 species of groupers, belonging to Family Serranidae were gathered. In an earlier research conducted in 2013, it found that groupers are a valuable fishery resource of reef ecosystems.

Triggerfish under the Family Balistidae gathered from WPS were primary predators of sea urchins that have the capacity to destroy reefs caused by excessive rates of bioerosion. Also, this fish species prey on Crown of Thorns Starfish (CoTS) that feed on corals.

The colorful family group of Chaetodontidae were also part of the MSR study. Abundance of butterflyfish were found to be directly correlated with coral abundance as they feed on coral polyps, algae and other food commonly found in the healthy reef areas.

In 2014, a research study claimed that parrotfish were also viewed as key functional species as they perform number of roles in the reef ecosystems. They feed on algal turfs, or the thick mats of seaweed that covers dead coral surfaces, resulting to high rates of removal and turnover of the benthic communities covering the reef. They are also considered as most important agents of bioerosion in the coral reef areas. With all its significant roles, parrotfish are advantageous organisms for the ecosystem health of WPS.

Five species of Acanthuridae were identified by NFRDI coming from the waters of WPS. A study conducted in 2022 highlighted that surgeonfish may play increasingly important roles in supporting key functions and services on current and future, highly-altered coral reefs. It was further stated that these species are key component of reef fish assemblages like the parrotfish as they feed on algae and detritus that covers the reef.

Meanwhile, 48 fish species from nine families of commercially significant fishes were documented in WPS, which is considered as one of the highly important fishing grounds in the Philippines. These families include Holocentridae, Lutjanidae, Carangidae, Lethrinidae, Serranidae, Mullidae, Belonidae, Siganidae, and Nemipteridae.

Serranidae and Lutjanidae are main fishery targets preferred in most industrialized countries for several food productions. Furthermore, top priority commodities in the Coral Triangle region, in which the WPS is located, include Carangidae, Lethrinidae, and Siganidae.

In 2020, a UP research study revealed that Lethrinidae and Mullidae were the most common fish caught using hook and line fishing gears in Scarborough Shoal. Meanwhile, Carangidae has become less dominant in the catch when compared to past catch date.

The results of the NFRDI research shed light on the exceptional biodiversity of fish species in the WPS further proving its high fisheries potential and contribution to the Philippine economy. In addition, the presence of species with pivotal role on the health of the reef ecosystem intensifies the need to protect WPS.

Prioritizing the conservation of WPS is imperative to protect its resources and ensure the continued benefits it could provide. This entails not only defending it against other countries claiming the territory but also preventing habitat loss, coral destruction, excessive overfishing, and other factors that may affect its overall health. Emphasizing the tremendous potential and opportunities in WPS underscores the necessity for persistent efforts to uphold the country’s right to use its abundant resources. (Vanessa Mae Escaño)