Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, located in the Sulu Sea of the Philippines, is considered to have among the biologically richest ecosystems on Earth. Equal in biodiversity to any coral reef of its size worldwide, the park is a 968-km2 no-take area, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site (www.tubbatahareef.org).

This past year the site has faced some significant challenges. Management has had to deal with a major case of illegal fishing and a slow-moving prosecution. Also, there has been the possibility that seismic exploration for petroleum could be carried out either inside or just outside the park – an activity that involves underwater blasts of intense, low-frequency sounds.

Below, MPA News speaks with Tubbataha Reefs manager Angelique Songco about these challenges and how the park is addressing them.

MPA News: On 21 December, it will be one year since park rangers apprehended the China-flagged fishing vessel Hoi Wan in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Upon boarding the vessel, your rangers found more than 800 live fish, including 350 juvenile Napoleon wrasse, an endangered species. What progress has been made in prosecuting this case?

Angelique Songco: The concerned government agencies filed cases against the Chinese nationals involved in the Hoi Wan case of 21 December 2006 for the violation of the Philippine Fisheries Code, the Wildlife Act, and the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act. To this day, the trial has not started. The arraignment of the accused has been scheduled several times but has been postponed as a result of motions filed by their counsel. In the meantime, the Chinese nationals are still here, part of Palawan society – going to market, going for haircuts and dental visits, etc.

MPA News: What are the main challenges you face in monitoring and prosecuting illegal activity in the park?

Songco: The park is offshore and quite extensive, so monitoring it is a major challenge. We use radar for monitoring but this cannot detect the presence of small watercraft, hence manned patrols are necessary. However, the park is also prone to the impacts of tropical storms and atmospheric disturbances, limiting the ability of our rangers to conduct more patrols. The best response we have to our enforcement challenges is the vigilance and commitment of our rangers, who are ready to weather rough conditions if at all humanly possible.

Our prosecutors and courts are saddled with numerous lawsuits and a shortage of judges, hence the very slow progress of our cases. We have been seeking the advice of legal practitioners in these parts to streamline our procedures and strategies in dealing with illegal fishers. Various institutions – from the private sector, government, and NGOs – are collaborating with us in seeking solutions in the form of policy and other reforms to the poor deterrent value of some of our national statutes.

MPA News: Another challenge you have faced this year is the possibility of seismic exploration for petroleum in your MPA. In 2005, the Philippine government signed a petroleum service contract with an energy exploration company, and the area of that contract overlapped the park by 15,000 hectares. Earlier this year, you convinced the national Department of Energy (DOE) to remove that area from the service contract. How did you convince the DOE to do this?

Songco: The present secretary of the DOE endorsed the expansion [in August 2006] of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park when he was still secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2006. He has been supportive of our endeavors in the past and we believe that he appreciates the value of the park, hence we did not doubt his support in convincing the energy exploration company to relinquish the overlap area. Even the exploration company did not require a lot of convincing to relinquish its claim to the area – perhaps due to the advice of DOE or, we hope, out of its support for the conservation of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The company had not yet conducted seismic surveys in that area of overlap before it agreed to grant our request.

MPA News: Seismic activity could still occur just outside the park boundary. How are you addressing this?

Songco: We have tried to convince the DOE that the prudent course of action is to establish a 10-nm buffer zone around the park to mitigate the impacts of energy exploration on marine life inside the protected area. The DOE informed us that it cannot unilaterally decide to grant the 43,000-hectare buffer zone we request, having entered into a contract with the private sector. It will conduct a dialogue with the exploration company and forward our request.

Nevertheless, the contract of this particular company expires in a few months and we hope that the DOE will not grant a new contract that will cover our proposed buffer area. We have communicated with DOE several times in the last few months and we hope to receive an answer by early 2008. This particular energy exploration contract covers millions of hectares. We believe that it is not excessive to request that a few thousand hectares be excised and reserved for conservation.

For more information:

Angelique Songco, Tubbataha Management Office, 2nd Floor, Basaya Building/National Highway, San Miguel, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines. Tel: +63 48 434 5759; E-mail: angelique@tubbatahareef.org