At stake in Tubbataha

Perhaps it is also time to review the penalty system and increase the fines to make them a deterrent for future intrusion into Tubbataha

Dean Tony La Viña Ata RoxasThe year 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the declaration of Tubbataha as a Philippine marine protected area. It is also the 20th anniversary since it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Indeed, Tubbataha is considered as the crown jewel of the Coral Triangle — the global center of marine biodiversity — teeming with wealth of unparalleled proportions. It is a cradle of life that provides home to more than 600 species of fish, 360 species of corals, 11 species of sharks, 13 species of dolphins and whales, 100 species of birds and a nesting site of endangered Hawkbills and Green sea turtles. In 1999, it was listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Undoubtedly, Tubbataha is a national, if not a world, treasure.

Beyond its beauty that attracts divers and researchers from all around the world to visit this mecca of natural splendor, the Philippine national and local economy greatly benefits from this biodiversity. The recreational opportunities and aesthetic value translate to job generation and (eco)tourism. Ten percent of the conservation fees paid by authorized users finance sustainable coastal resource management strategies and alternative livelihood initiatives in Cagayancillo. Other revenues derived from tourism support the local micro-credit facility for seaweed farmers and other entrepreneurs.

Second, biodiversity is an indication of an ecosystem’s productivity. Ergo the more diverse, the more productive an area is.

Tubbataha alone produces at least 200 tons per sq. km. of fish biomass. Strategically located at heart of Sulu Sea, it plays a vital role in the reproduction and dispersal of marine organisms. It goes without saying that it shares responsibility in sustaining the productivity of nearby fisheries.

Studies show that it provides an annual economic value of approximately PhP 208 to 211 per sq. m. Another estimated economic value is declared at US$6,331,000. Both are conservative values that do not include all indirect benefits such as its ability to sequester carbon, mitigate global warming, and control storms and floods.

Third, the diversity of an ecosystem helps communities withstand and recover from disasters and climate change. For example, the 1998 El Niño phenomenon has caused massive global coral bleaching. Recent studies show that due to the complexity of the structure of the Tubbataha reefs, it only made minimal effects to the fish biomass and density.

Such richness demands protection. The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) Act or RA 7611 is one of the many laws that safeguard the Reef against imminent danger. Thus far, it has a good track record of implementation performance. In fact, it recently won a silver award at the 2012 Future Policy Award as an “example of successful coral reef conservation and model for action on other coral reefs.”

Tubbataha’s recent popularity was not caused by these stunning diversity and economic benefit or by a recent promotional video of the Department of Tourism. It took the grounding of the USS Guardian minesweeper to get the limelight on it again.

Investigations are being made to determine why the ship has wandered off into a protected marine park, what went wrong, who is accountable, and how much are the fines. Among the violations listed in TRNP Act, the US faces at least four offenses: unauthorized entry (sec. 19), damages to the reef (sec. 20), non-payment of conservation fees (sec. 21), and destroying, disturbing resources (sec. 26).

There is no doubt that the government will conduct due diligence. The US has expressed its regret and is coordinating with the Philippine government in salvaging the ship. Regardless of whether or not this was caused by weather, mechanical and/or human error, the law simply does not distinguish. People must be held accountable and penalties, damages and rehabilitation must be sufficiently compensated. The US government still has to indicate whether it is willing to pay these penalties and the cost for rehabilitation.

Increase the fines?

The average fine for ship grounding in the Tubbataha is estimated at PhP 12,000 per sq. m (from a low PhP 9,500 to a high PhP 15,000 per sq. m). These amounts are based on a 2006 study by noted environmental economist Rina Maria P. Rosales that estimated the fines based on factors like productivity and restoration.

With an approximated damage of at 1,000 sq. m., the US must pay at least PhP 12,000,000 or US$ 300,000 in addition to the cost of salvaging the ship and the actual rehabilitation. This amount is little in comparison to ship grounding cases in other countries. For example, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary fines US$ 481 per sq. m. while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park fines A$ 733 per sq. m.

Perhaps it is also time to review the penalty system and increase the fines to make them a deterrent for future intrusion into Tubbataha.

It is also important to put into context our anger over this incident involving the USS Guardian and not exaggerate as to make it the catastrophe it might not be. In fact, we should probably wait until the assessment of damage now being conducted by Filipino scientists is completed before we make our final judgments. 1,000 sq. m. against the entire 970,300,000 sq. m. is “only” 0.0001 percent of the park. As others graphically put it, the damage is equivalent to at least two basketball courts to an area.

This size of course should not be underestimated. It takes 5 years to more than 20 years for severely damaged reef systems to regenerate on its own. And even if restoration is possible, the reef will never be the same again.

In addition for me, the issue about this incident is more about the fact that it happened at all. Why did the USS Guardian stray into a park which is strictly off limits? Why did its crew react the way it did as reported by the park rangers? Most important of all, how can we prevent future incidents from happening?

We cannot afford complacency in how we manage and protect Tubbataha and our other ecological treasures. We live in a beautiful country and our natural resources are both breathtaking and productive. But they are threatened daily – not so much by incidents like this involving the USS Guardian but by our own greed and recklessness.

If we do not change and buckle down to the serious work of protecting the environment – whether it is Manila Bay, forests or our coral reefs, we only have ourselves to blame. –

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