A Philippine city on the front lines of the wide-reaching South China Sea dispute is developing marine protection and ecotourism to help the sea and regenerate stocks for an embattled local fishing industry.

Masinloc, a city of 49,000 people on the South China Sea coast of Luzon Island, is stepping up protection of fish and coral covering 7,560 hectares in its bay, Olive Ebido-Gregario, municipal coastal resources management officer, said.

The health of coral in the bay affects fish that migrate across the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, and 40 percent of the sea’s species can be traced back to Masinloc, Ebido-Gregario said.

Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam claim all or parts of the sea largely to fish.

Key to fishing

“We have a very big contribution to the coral reef, not only in the Philippines, but we have a big contribution to the coral triangle countries, like Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines,” Ebido-Gregorio said. “Maybe it contributes to the biodiversity of all other nearby countries.”

The sea gives trawlers 16.6 million tons of fish every year, according to a National Geographic report in mid-2016, but stocks are declining due to overuse.

In Masinloc, catches have declined 50 percent since 2010, the local coast guard unit estimates.

Overfishing, overpopulation and climate change have hurt the marine environment, the city officer said. Some of the 3,000 locals registered in the fishing trade use sodium cyanide and air compressors to fish, both illegal off the coast of Masinloc, she said.

Foreign vessels near the city use illegal means to take fish as well, a coast guard commander said.

Continued disputes

China also stops Philippine vessels from entering Scarborough Shoal, which is 198 kilometers away from Masinloc. China and the Philippines dispute sovereignty of the shoal along with much of the sea off the archipelago’s west coasts.

Masinloc fishermen say lack of access to the shoal has pushed them closer to the Philippine coastline, where catches are smaller due to overfishing. The shoal is prized for the abundance of large fish.

“Very angry now because fish (are) now very far,” Raul Canumuy, a 44-year-old fisherman, said Tuesday as he helped gut a catch on a Masinloc beach. “Before around there,” he said, pointing to the waters near the beach. “Now 40 miles.”

Masinloc turns to tourism

Tourism, for a few, has supplanted fishing in Masinloc. About 500 people per month visit two of the bay’s protected areas, a 7.5-hectare mangrove island and the San Salvador Marine Sanctuary, a city tourism official said.

Tourists board small boats for city-organized boat rides lasting more than half a day. They come from around the Philippines, elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the United States.

The city’s moves to ensure the health of the sea began in 1989 with the declaration of its first protected area in the bay along the Luzon Island coast where Masinloc is located.

Now, four spots are protected to save coral, sea grass and mangroves, which are fish habitats.

From 2005 to 2008, the city took part in a U.N. Environment Program-funded effort to reverse degradation in the South China Sea. Over the past three years it has worked with 11 other coastal cities and a Philippine environmental nonprofit group to regulate or ban fishing.

Still, in June the city discovered a mysterious bleaching of coral at three spots in the protected bay, which could threaten fish catches as well as species sought by snorkeling tourists.

More protection work is slated for next year.

Fishing moratoriums

China has sought to regulate stocks through annual fishing moratoriums since 1995. From May through August this year, it will declare a moratorium for the whole sea north of the 12th parallel.

That area touches the claims of Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.

But other countries see the moratorium as an assertion of Chinese power, said Fabrizio Bozzato, an associate researcher specializing in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Masinloc fisherman say they do not plan to observe it.

Beijing has built a series of disputed islets in the South China Sea for military use, including radar systems that can learn what other countries are doing at sea and stop any perceived violators.

“A periodical fishing moratorium would be advisable in order to avoid depletion of the South China Sea fisheries,” Bozzato said. “The problem is that the fishing ban is unilateral. It is not agreed [upon] with the other fishing entities in the South China Sea.”

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