by U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law
In March 2021, a leading Philippine oceanographer and an American explorer, together, reached the deepest point of the Philippine trench – a historic voyage to one of the least-explored places on Earth. By partnering on marine issues, whether on marine sustainability or maritime domain awareness, we protect and explore the world’s interconnected waters, including the Philippine seas.
This June, we celebrate not only World Oceans Month, but also the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Philippines. Our cooperation on maritime issues stands out for its incredible promise. Since the launch of the Peace Corps and USAID in the Philippines 60 years ago, Americans and Filipinos have been working together to protect Philippine marine spaces and marine species. In the years to come, we must redouble our efforts to protect the richness of Philippine seas.
When Dr. Onda and Victor Vescovo reached the Emden Deep, even there, they discovered ocean plastics. Plastic debris in our oceans is a global problem that costs the world as much as $2.5 trillion annually. Earlier this month, during a marine–focused “Oceans of Opportunities” conference, the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies and University of Philippines International Maritime Law of the Sea characterized the Philippines’ marine environmental situation as “stark.” They noted that the country and its neighbors are “literally choking on plastic debris,” 750,000 metrics tons of which leach into the sea from the Philippines every year.
However, in the face of this challenge, one expert claimed U.S.-Philippine marine cooperation is one of the “most productive endeavors we have seen historically.” Together, we are improving waste management and developing innovations in packaging and recycling to keep debris out of the ocean, while raising community awareness to change handling of plastic waste. Our work to make Philippine waters plastic-free will revive coral reefs, strengthen fish populations, clean up the beaches, support tourism, and reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing costs the Philippines an estimated Php63 billion a year and endangers the marine species that produce food and income for millions of Filipinos. We’ve partnered with the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and local government units throughout the Philippines to help stop these destructive practices. Through USAID Fish Right, we’re also working to ensure safe, legal fishing practices are not only sustainable but profitable for Filipino fisherfolk.
Because waters are all connected, we are committed to increasing regional and multilateral cooperation on marine issues. Through regional projects like USAID Oceans, events like the Leaders’ Summit on Climate, and organizations like the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI), we are bringing international partners together to take action to improve the management and sustainability of our shared resources.
This past April, a team of Filipino and American explorers jointly discovered a sunken Navy destroyer, the USS Johnston, lost during the Battle off Samar on October 25, 1944, as Americans and Filipinos fought to liberate the Philippines during World War II. The shipwreck, the deepest of its kind at 21,000 feet underwater, presents a unique opportunity to learn more about marine habitat and history. This amazing discovery, more than 75 years after the USS Johnston was thought lost for good, highlights the need for more research and visibility into our waters. Ocean and reef health help us measure changes in key environmental indicators and can affect conditions in coastal waters hundreds of miles away. The more data we can gather on fish populations, the accurate the baseline we have from which to measure climate change effects and implement policies to best protect our maritime riches for future generations.
To jumpstart this critical work, our leading youth exchange program YSEALI, piloted a Marine Accelerator Program this year to train 62 emerging leaders of 33 marine conservation projects from across Southeast Asia. These projects will enable emerging conservation leaders to improve regional cooperation and address maritime and inland waterway issues, such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, river or marine ecosystem degradation, and marine debris.
While conservation efforts are critical, preserving marine species requires protecting marine spaces. This August marks the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which underpins our security alliance. The security benefits of MDT enable cooperation to improve maritime domain awareness and deter nations from committing environmental crimes. Using tools like the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite and satellite imagery, the United States and the Philippines are working together to stop environmental damage before it happens.
With much at stake—sovereignty, food security, and livelihoods—we must continue to do our utmost to protect the world’s waters.