In the implementation of conservation laws, it is often necessary to implement the spirit of the law, and not only the letter of the law. This is especially true these days when our coastal ecosystems and the resources therein are in critical conditions, threatening our own survival. I wish to stress this idea in relation to seagrass beds, a critical ecosystem in Philippine coastal areas.
Seagrass beds, which occupy an estimated coastal area of less than 1 million hectares in the Philippines, are not well appreciated by people compared to mangroves and coral reefs. Yet, scientific measurements of their primary productivity, which is no less than 160 grams Carbon per square meter per year (the rate of coral reefs in the Kalayaan Islands, South China Sea) according to Dr. Maria Lourdes San Diego-McGlone of the University of the Philippines. This high primary productivity is seen in terms of their lush growth that serves as habitats or “homes” of so many marine species.
Seagrasses are as productive as mangroves and coral reef ecosystems. Like these two latter ecosystems, they provide many ecosystem services to humankind. These services include serving as nursery areas for a variety of marine organisms used as food by people such as fish shrimps, crabs, shells, and fish; as habitats of adult fish caught by fishers; as food for the endangered dugong and sea turtles; and as sinks for carbon dioxide (thus helping to mitigate the effects of climate change). The nutrients of old leaves of seagrasses are returned to the coastal ecosystems through the next production cycle of fresh, highly productive seagrass beds. Thus seagrass beds help in the maintenance of coastal productivity on which coastal communities depend so much for their food needs.
It is therefore very sad to receive reports that seagrasses in their prime state of productive life are harvested by the truckloads by some people and some fishers with the apparent approval of the officials of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the local government officials at Siit, a barangay located between the municipalities of Siaton and Zamboanguita, Negros Oriental according to reports I received during the Holy Week (this year). The seagrass material harvested was to be sold to some Chinese traders to be converted to fertilizer somewhere else, according to information. A larger question is how many local communities in the country are destroying seagrass beds?
Did not these Siit exploiters know that they destroyed the habitats of adult and juvenile fish, the shrimps, etc. that were living in the seagrass beds of Siit? Did they know that they reduced the productivity of the coastal area of Siit?
My guess is that the government officials that gave permits to exploit the seagrass beds did not read the R.A. 8550 (the Fishery Code) or if they did, they must have justified their action by the absence of a specific provision against the harvesting of seagrass. In R.A. 8550, there is a clear prohibition of the destruction of corals and mangroves (see pp. 63-64, Legal and Jurisdictional Framework for Coastal Management, Philippine Coastal Management Guidebook Series No.2, 2001) with the use of active gears, “muro-ami”, “paaling” for corals and the cutting of trees for mangroves. The reason is to protect the habitats of fishes and other marine species in these two ecosystems.
So even though physical destruction of seagrass beds is not mentioned in the law (the letter of the law), physical destruction of marine habitats other than coral reefs and mangroves, such as seagrass beds, is implied in the spirit of the law. Seagrass beds are habitats of fish, just like coral reefs and mangroves. It is therefore logical that they be considered as critical habitats together with coral reefs and mangroves. As such, they should not be harvested or removed from coastal areas where they occur. They should be conserved because they form part of our highly productive coastal ecosystems.