In December 2007, MPA News spoke with Angelique Songco, manager of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines, about enforcement challenges her offshore MPA faced (MPA News 9:6). A Chinese fishing vessel had been caught poaching hundreds of live fish in the no-take MPA one year before. Songco spoke of the delays in prosecution of the case, leading to the Chinese crew members becoming part of Palawan society while they awaited trial.

Recently we checked back with her to see how the prosecution – and enforcement in general in Tubbataha – were going:

MPA News: Two years ago we discussed the Chinese vessel Hoi Wan that was caught fishing illegally in Tubbataha. Has the trial started yet?

Angelique Songco: In a lower court, the accused pled guilty and were fined, and the boat was forfeited in favor of the government. But the counsel for the accused protested the forfeiture, which means the case continues to creep through our legal system and may take another year to finally reach a resolution.

MPA News: Have enforcement challenges at Tubbataha changed over time?

Songco: The entry of foreign poachers in the park – such as in the Hoi Wan case – is not a common occurrence. We are more challenged by incidents of topshell gathering by fishers from mainland Palawan. [Topshell is a marine snail (Trochus niloticus).] This is a recent development that began in 2006. We have found that the population of topshells in the park has decreased by almost 80% since then. These fishers harvest shells at night, making detection tricky. We have informants in the fishing villages, and we have made arrests based on their reports. Our information and education activities target fishing villages and schools in the known localities of illegal fishers. Through a grant from Jaeger-LeCoultre (a Swiss luxury watchmaker) and the intervention of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, we purchased a more efficient radar system last year to replace the 12-year old model we had. The new system can detect most of the topshell poachers’ boats. [Editor’s note: there is a guard station in the park.] There was a decrease in topshell collection in 2009 but a few fishers continue to take the risk of incarceration.

MPA News: Compliance and enforcement are related: the more compliance there is, the less need there is for enforcement. What strategies does Tubbataha use to encourage compliance?

Songco: The downside to being an offshore MPA is that we are unable to provide adequate opportunity for people to appreciate its values firsthand. It is a challenge to bring people to the park, due to distance [it is 81 km from shore] and its seasonal restrictions on access. Instead, we endeavor to bring the park to schools and villages through photos and slide presentations. Regulations are well-publicized. The laws that apply to the park and their value are explained in the fishing communities.

As an offshore MPA, there is no specific community that has “ownership” of Tubbataha. Our audience is so wide and varied that it is challenging and costly to inspire support for conservation. We continue to strengthen information and education activities, upgrade enforcement equipment, and train personnel to meet the challenges inherent in an offshore MPA.

For more information:

Angelique Songco, Tubbataha Management Office, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines. E-mail: