PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines – The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park was officially named an ASEAN Heritage Park (AHP) on Thursday, November 5, joining 6 others from the Philippines.
The award was given by the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), which is based in Los Baños, at a ceremony in Palawan’s provincial capitol.
“We are proud to have been inscribed in the ASEAN Heritage Parks list. It is an affirmation of what has been done so far. There’s a whole range of initiatives being supported by different agencies. All these efforts in the last 15 years have just paid off,” said Angelique Songco, Protected Area Superintendent of the Tubbataha Management Office.
Located in the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha is the first marine protected area to become an AHP in the Philippines. It becomes the 35th AHP in the region, making the Philippines the country with the most AHPs.
Other AHPs in the Philippines include:
- Mt Makiling Nature Reserve (Laguna)
- Mt Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary (Davao Oriental)
- Mts Iglit-Baco National Park (Mindoro)
- Mt Apo Natural Park (Davao)
- Mt Kitanglad Ranger Natural Park (Bukidnon)
- Mt Malindang Range Natural Park (Misamis Occidental)
AHP is a flagship project of the ASEAN. It is a network of the 10-member countries’ best protected areas with high biodiversity and conservation values.
Mt Hibok-Hibok in Camiguin is also applying to be an AHP.
According to Songco, managing the reef is challenging because of its distance. The reef is located 150 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa City and falls under the municipality of Cagayancillo.
Going to the reef usually takes 8 to 12 hours. There are also no habitable islands so visitors stay on their boats for days.
“Going there is very seasonal so management is very costly in that case. The seasonal access also affects your efficiency as a manager. Sometimes, you can’t do things you need to do because you can’t visit the site,” Songco added.
The park is managed by 8 to 10 park rangers who guard the reef year-long, rotating 2 months at a time. The Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coastguard, and the local government of Cagayancillo also help guard the park.
“The policy-making body is composed of 21 people from different agencies. We also have the private sector and the academe. It crosses different sections of society and that’s to ensure that the concerns of these sectors in the park are addressed,” Songco added.
USS Guardian incident
In January 2013, US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian damaged more than 25,000 square feet of corals when it ran aground the reef.
Reeling the ship, the US Navy said, would be more costly so it hired a Singapore-based company to dismantle the ship instead. The salvaging cost around $25 million.
“The area of the grounding sites have already shown evidence of recovery – there are coral spots growing and fish biomass is increasing. It’s a positive development. But for us to see it the way it was is probably not gonna be in this lifetime. It’s going to be a long time before it goes back to its original condition,” Songco added.
The US Navy paid P87 million worth of damage. This amount of damage to the coral was determined by a joint team of the USS Guardian and personnel from the marine park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.
“I believe the compensation is enough because that’s what the law says. it’s not like you change the compensation structure just because the violator has money to pay. That’s what we charged and I think it’s fair,” Songco said.
The park official added that the entire incident could have been avoided if the ship captains were more careful.
“The Philippine government has already established the best safeguards we can provide. In the NAMRIA (National Mapping and Resource Information Authority) map of 2010, the boundaries are indicated in that map and it is also indicated that entry is prohibited,” she said.
The real importance of Tubbataha lies in its biodiversity, Songco noted, as the reef serves as a fish bank to many of the country’s fishing grounds.
“It broadcasts larvae of fish and coral all over the Sulu Sea. If you don’t have a place that sends all those eggs around the fishing grounds, you have a problem. We need places like that that we don’t touch. It’s like a bank that you just wait for the interests to come,” Songco said.
ACB executive director Roberto Oliva noted that the Philippine government actually has good initiatives in preserving biodiversity.
“The Philippines is one of the advanced countries in terms of policy advocacy in biodiversity. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen how we lost our mountains and marine resources – and now we are the receiving end of climate change. I hope this would continue,” he said.
He added that he is hopeful Tubbataha’s example will be replicated across the country.
“Hopefully, what’s happening in Tubataha will be shared across the country – its best practices on how it’s managed and how the marine life is sustained. (We also have) an opportunity to share to the rest of ASEAN our best practices,” Oliva said.
Oliva noted how understanding biodiversity needs to be simplified.
“Biodiversity is variety of life. That’s where we get our food, our rice, our fish, our clothes – all of these are biodiversity. That’s why we need to take care of it because if we don’t, the food chain will be destroyed and we won’t have food, air, and life,” he added.
Recognized as having the highest coral diversity in the world, Tubbataha is part of the Coral Triangle, which contains 75% of coral species and 40% of the world’s reef fish. – Rappler.com