ENVIRONMENT: Blue economy paves way for country’s progress and development

We need to create and protect our wealth for a sustainable blue economy, said Science Secretary Renato U. Solidum, Jr. during the country’s largest annual Science, Technology, and Innovation Week (NSTW) celebration held at the Iloilo Convention Center in Iloilo City recently.

“Our country, being an archipelago, is teeming with rich marine resources that contribute to employment generation, enhance the business economy, nurture our diverse cultural heritage and traditions, and promote inclusive growth in the regions,” pointed out the head of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

Solidum said that the blue economy is one of the 12 key operational areas included in the Pagtanaw 2050 produced by the DOST-National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

The blue economy is defined as “an economic development model that focuses on the sustainable management and use of natural and other resources in the maritime sector. It aims to sustainably use ocean resources for economic growth and improved livelihoods while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”

Given that the Philippines is archipelagic in nature, it possesses the right resources that can provide opportunities for growing the country’s blue economy.

According to Solidum, his department takes “an active role in developing programs that will ensure the protection, conservation, and sustainable utilization of our marine resources and related endeavors, including the use of alternative sources of power like wave energy, creating livelihood opportunities in the fisheries sector and shipbuilding industry, maintaining balance in our marine ecosystem, and promoting viable eco-tourism projects for sustainable development.”

“This initiative is just the beginning of a new approach to fulfilling the DOST’s four strategies we call the four pillars namely: Human Well-Being, Wealth Creation, Wealth Protection, and Sustainability,” he explained.

Through its line agency – the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) – and the Central Visayas Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development Consortium (CVAARRDEC), the science department is exploring various prospects and livelihood opportunities for a sustainable blue economy in the country.

As part of the 2023 NSTW in Iloilo City, experts and researchers shared various studies that could unleash the potential of the blue economy in different areas of the country, especially in the countryside.

In her lecture, Dr. Jesrelljane A. Amper of Bohol Island State University emphasized the importance of small-scale fisherfolk and their vulnerability, as well as the strategies they employed to overcome challenges, particularly during the recent pandemic.

“Small-scale fisherfolk, often overlooked despite their significant population, emerged as one of the most vulnerable sectors to the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic. Their vulnerability is rooted in economic factors since most of them rely on their daily catch sales and local market,” she said.

She cited the case of the fisherfolk in Danajon Bank, where the study was done. “Fishing is the core of daily life for everyone, for both men and women,” he said. “The majority depend on catching fish from the sea as their main source of income. During the pandemic, the no-sail policy disrupted the supply chain and market access, leading to severe consequences for the income and financial stability of small-scale fisheries households in Danajon Bank.”

“Not only are fishing-related activities impacted, but the overall economic landscape has also been destabilized,” she added.

Among the coping strategies and innovations developed by the fisherfolk in Danajon Bank in the midst of the pandemic, include the following: adoption of kinship-based marketing channels, shift to post-harvest processing of fish (specifically drying and salting) to extend shelf life, diversification of livelihood sources such as gardening, and substitution of traditional food and nutritional sources using seaweed-based delicacies such as “puto,” biscuits, and jams.

Considering the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic on small-scale fisherfolk, Dr. Amper and her team suggested using the sustainable livelihood approach and put forth some policy recommendations, such as streamlining and simplifying access to support programs, providing training in sustainable fishing practices, facilitating partnerships between small-scale fisherfolk and larger seafood distributors, and providing fisherfolk health coverage and financial support in emergencies.

Dr. Danilo B. Largo of the University of San Carlos focused his lecture on Sargassum, a particular type of brown seaweed, its benefits to marine organisms, and all its potential uses to improve the country’s blue economy.

“Many of you may not be familiar with Sargassum, perhaps because this marine organism is not easily seen, although it is very ubiquitous sometimes during the year, forming blooms that float around at the end of the year,” he told the audience.

“So, why are we interested in Sargassum? What caught our attention? Sargassum… [it] is so abundant in other parts of the world, but on this side of the Pacific, we are trying to culture them.”

He said that this particular species of seaweed forms an underwater forest. “They allow organisms to thrive – serving as habitat, shelter, feeding ground, nursery, spawning, and breeding grounds for a lot of marine organisms,” he said. “No other seaweed in the tropics can compare to the size and biomass of Sargassum. Other countries have already utilized it for a wide range of applications.”

He said that among the potential products that the Philippines can extract from Sargassum include Sargassum alginate, which can be used in the food industry as an emulsifier, thickener, or stabilizing agent, or in the biomedical industry as a microencapsulating or radiography agent. It is also being used to create bioplastics, which can be used in food packaging to reduce the use of synthetic plastics.

Sargassum is also seen to have anti-cancer and prebiotic properties, as well as antioxidative and antimicrobial properties, he said.

Another important potential use is the seaweed-based animal feed, which will reduce methane gas emissions in cattle and therefore substantially mitigate the volume of greenhouse gases. Studies have also shown that aquatic animals fed with Sargassum-based feed had improved immune systems.

However, despite its potential, it is still not being used to improve the economy.

“There is still a standing policy of prohibiting harvesting, whether it comes from the natural population or from the cultured sargassum,” lamented Dr. Largo. “The solution here is really to introduce the culture of Sargassum for a sustainable supply of seaweed and to spur the Philippine blue economy.”

Dr. Largo and his team attempted to develop hatcheries for different species of Sargassum, of which there are forty to sixty to choose from in the country. They developed and produced two culture manuals and one primer for the responsible farming of sargassum and a proposed management strategy.

Meanwhile, Solidum said his department has several programs and projects in the Visayas that address the blue economy.

“For one, we have the development of the hybrid trimaran, a sea vessel with multiple engines and an alternative renewable energy system using ocean wave energy,” he said. “This is a collaboration of the DOST with Aklan State University, Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), local government officials of Aklan, and Metallica Shipyard,” he said.

The science secretary also mentioned that the PCAARRD has contributed to the creation of the ARAICOBEH system, a cost-effective survey tool for assessing coastal benthic habitats. This system allows for faster and broader monitoring of both coral and non-coral sites.

One project worth mentioning is the Reef Baybe, a coral reef decision-making tool and primer. This software integrates quantitative data and expert knowledge through a Bayesian belief network model, offering a comprehensive perspective on ridge-to-river-to-reef systems. The Reef Baybe aims to assist marine protected area managers and other users in making informed, data-driven decisions for the protection of coral reefs.

“These are just a few of the many programs we have developed and are still developing that focus on sustaining the blue economy. With all the S&T interventions we are doing in the regions, we plan to continue this approach by holding future NSTW celebrations in the provinces,” said Solidum.

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