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PHILIPPINES: Enforcing Environmental Laws

Andrew Wood, Pitt Law '08, files from Manila:

The Philippines has a number of laws on the books that are geared towards protecting the environment, but effective enforcement of those laws is another story. This fact is evident in the aquarium fishing industry. The Philippines is one of the world's leading exporters of ornamental fish. Destructive fishing and over-fishing, including the use of cyanide in collecting aquarium fishes poses a significant threat to the marine environment, which is extremely diverse in the Philippines.

For example, the Verde Passage Marine Corridor, located about 2 hours south of Manila, was recently found to contain the richest biodiversity of marine shorefish in the world. The Indo-Malaya-Philippines Archipelago (IMPA) has long been considered the area of highest marine biodiversity in the world. There is a higher concentration of marine species per unit area in the Verde Passage in the Philippines than anywhere else in the IMPA. Hence, the Verde Passage Marine Corridor, home to over 1700 marine species, has recently been dubbed the "center of marine shore fish biodiversity in the world" by a world renowned scientist and expert on marine fishes.

Still, the use of destructive fishing methods such as the use of cyanide and other toxic substances continues and threatens the marine environment. The toxins are spread among the corals, stunning the fish for easy collection. In the process, corals — living organisms in and of themselves — are damaged and killed. The problems posed by cyanide use are widely known, and laws exist that are intended to regulate the situation. For example, Section 88 of the Philippine Fisheries Code addresses cyanide and other noxious chemicals in the same manner as dynamite fishing. The most significant problem, however, is the lack of enforcement of the law.

An ineffective enforcement scheme exists on paper that requires fishermen to stop at a Cyanide Detection Test Center before they sell their fish to an exporter. Enforcement within this scheme requires better equipment as well as an enforcement strategy that continues a multifaceted approach but needs to emphasize regulation at the exporter level if enforcement is to succeed. Improved equipment, which the national government's Cyanide Detection Test Center has proposed they need, would enable cyanide testing in the laboratory to be significantly more effective. Even with adequate equipment, however, fishermen often bypass the legally required stop at the CDT center and go straight to the exporters. While enforcement is encouraged at all levels, the most effective way to remedy and manage these violations is at the exporter level because there are far fewer exporters than there are fishermen. The exporters are required to obtain a cyanide-free certification for every batch of fish they purchase, and if this requirement is enforced at the exporter level the fishermen will necessarily have to follow suit.

In addition to the emphasis placed on enforcement at the exporter level, a multifaceted approach should be continued and the best current model is that provided by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), an international NGO with a strong presence in the Philippines and the Verde Island Passage. An approach that integrates the various concerned stakeholders is necessary to achieve a successful legal framework. Identifying the problem — the destruction caused by cyanide — and raising awareness among the stakeholders including the fishermen who use cyanide is a start, but it is not enough. As noted before, most fishermen are aware of the problem. If the law is to act as a deterrent, an effective enforcement strategy is necessary.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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