REPRESENTATIVE Christopherson "Coco" Yap of the 2nd Congressional District of Southern Leyte has pushed for a House Bill 4095, which seeks to protect the waters surrounding Panaon Island in Southern Leyte province by placing it under the protective mantle of the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (Enipas).

"The declaration of Panaon Island as Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the Enipas Act is very important to ensure that our future generation, including our children, would be able to experience the island as we experience it today, with its diverse marine flora and fauna," said Yap.

"The formation of a body specially created for its protection would deter commercial vessels from encroaching in municipal waters to do their illegal acts with impunity and keep our most prized reefs from destruction. This will allow marine life to thrive and to be available to our subsistence fishermen and give assurance to our visitors that they will get what they came for or will have something much better to come back to," he added.

In a statement, the lawmaker thanked the partnership with Oceana Philippines, particularly Oceana Vice President Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos and her team during their recent visit to his office "to help us with the messaging and start the conversation and plans that would eventually benefit out marginalized people in Panaon Island."

Panaon Island, comprising the towns of Liloan, San Francisco, Pintuyan and San Ricardo, was found by an international study as among the priority reefs that will highly likely withstand the devastating impacts of climate change.

Officials in the said four towns also passed their respective resolutions supporting the establishment of Panaon Island as a protected seascape.

When properly managed, MPAs enhance resiliency of natural life support systems against the adverse impacts of climate change and maintain ecosystem services, according to a study.

Panaon’s rich biodiversity

In another research on the State of Fish in Nutrition Systems conducted by Oceana and MRAG Asia Pacific, in cooperation with the Department of Science and Technology-Food and Nutrition Research Institute, it was revealed that the Philippines "has long been ranked among the top fish producing countries in the world, with fisheries as a strategically important sector for both food security and livelihoods."

"Specifically, according to the socio-economic survey conducted in Panaon Island, majority of fisherfolks respondents rely on seafood as a source of protein by as much as 50-100%," Oceana said.

According to the marine advocacy group, Panaon Island is part of the regions identified as 50 priority reefs globally identified by a group of scientists and commissioned by Bloomberg Philanthropies together with other funders.

"These reefs, in the absence of other impacts, are climate resilient. They are likely to have a heightened chance of surviving negative impacts of climate change compared to other reefs. Hence, protection of coral reefs in these locations needs to be prioritized," Oceana said.

"Panaon Island's marine ecosystems are biodiverse but are threatened," it added.

In 2020 alone, Oceana, in partnership with the Province of Southern Leyte, Southern Leyte State University, and the four towns of Panaon Island, organized an expedition around the Island to assess its coastal habitats and fisheries.

"Our studies show that coral reefs around the island had some of the highest live hard coral cover in the country, with greater than 44 percent hard coral cover while none were found to have less than 22% hard coral cover. Even the coral reefs in the more exposed Pacific side of the island recorded higher mean cover than the computed average for the bioregion," Oceana said.

"The reef-associated fish communities at the different reef areas around Panaon Island were found to have moderate richness and very high in abundance," it added.

Oceana stressed that "with the establishment of Panaon Island as a 61,251-hectare marine protected area, the Philippines can contribute to the international commitments under the Convention on Biodiversity, Paris Agreement and other multilateral environmental agreements."

Currently, the Philippines' marine protected areas cover 3.1 million hectares, which is only 1.4% of the country's territorial waters under national law.

"Based on these premises, the establishment of the Panaon Island Protected Seascape is a win-win situation for nature and people," the global marine advocacy group said.

Yap's House Bill 4095 and Southern Leyte 1st Congressional District Representative Luz Mercado House Bill 3743, which calls for the same measure, are now pending in the Committee on Natural Resources of the 19th Congress. (SunStar Philippines)