Respect Tubbataha

A photo of USS Guardian stuck in a coastal area of the national park. Photo courtesy of solarnews.
A photo of USS Guardian stuck in a coastal area of the national park. Photo courtesy of solarnews.

Few men in our world’s history have been as revered as Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States. The man known for his range of interests and love for nature had left this inspiring quote on preserving our national heritage: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

Indeed, part of loving your country is to place importance on its’ cultural and historical patrimony, the inheritance passed on to you by preceding generations and all that was endowed to your country by nature.

One of the most iconic heritage the Philippines can boast to the world is our very own Tubbataha National Park, proclaimed in 2008 to be among the New 7 wonders of nature. It has also been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993.

Placed in the center of the Sulu Sea, just south of Palawan, Tubbataha is a popular site among divers and tourists alike for the spectacular show it offers as well as to marine biologists for the rich biodiversity it safeguards. The site boasts 600 species of fish, 360 species of coral, 11 species of shark, 13 species of dolphins and 100 different bird species.

The national park is also part of the Coral Triangle, home of 75% of the world’s coral species and 40% of the world’s reef fish population. The rich biodiversity as well as its value to tourism were both factors in government making it a protected site in 1988, by virtue of Proclamation no. 306 signed by the late Corazon Aquino.

Despite its’ environmental significance, as well as it being a prominent and crucial national treasure, Tubbataha National Park seems to be auxiliary for  succeeding governments.

It was only last year when Tubbataha captured national headlines for several months, in January of 2013 a U.S. Navy minesweeper ran aground in the national park despite it being a protected area. The grounding caused 2,345 sq. m of damage to the reef and the U.S. Navy paid a $1.4M fine. The vessel ended up being dismantled rather than towed away to prevent further damage, being completely disassembled by the 30th of March. Aside from the substantial coral damage, Philippine-U.S. relations were also strained as the latter blamed inaccurate Philippine navigational charts for their grounding.

Eight years earlier, another foreign boat – Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior – also ran aground in the reef. Again, the non-profit group blamed faulty Philippine maps for the havoc but still paid a US$7,000 fine for the violation. This incident damaged 100 sq. m of coral reef.

Perhaps the most publicized and controversial incident occurred just a week after the U.S. Navy finished dismantling the USS Guardian. On April 8, 2013 a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in the protected Tubbataha National Park as well. This incident proved to be the most testing as Philippine-Chinese relations have long been strained due to disputes in the Spratlys Islands and the Scarborough Shoal. The mere fact that a Chinese vessel was inside Philippine territory infuriated the Filipino people, especially as Filipino fishermen have been dispossessed of their fishing spots in the West Philippine Sea by Chinese fishing fleets and trawlers.

What authorities discovered after proved even more frustrating. The Chinese vessel was involved in illegal fishing and poaching, and their cargo revealed 400 boxes of scaly anteaters or pangolins – known to be a popular Chinese delicacy.

You would think that with such a prized natural asset such as the Tubbataha, the government would take steps to ensure its’ conservation. Sadly, even after these major incidents the national park is only secured with 12 park rangers with basic motor-engine boats. Such a small force would prove to be no match for a medium-sized Chinese poaching fleet, which would have been armed with more advanced weaponry.

What’s more ironic is that it was the late Corazon Aquino, the mother of incumbent president Noynoy Aquino, who enacted the executive order that made Tubbataha a protected area. Unfortunately, her son – the current president – does not see as much importance to this national treasure as much as she did.

The incidents keep coming, just this week another vessel ran aground inside the Tubbataha National Park. A yacht with two American nationals were stranded after their boat jammed into coral reef. Clearly damage would have been made to the corals, as to how much remains unknown. The size of the damage is expected to be small, but with the frequent intrusions of unauthorized boats in the area there is a great risk that a sizable damage or two could occur in the future.

Another matter to be concerned about is poaching, the Chinese poachers whose vessel ran aground in Tubbataha admitted to know their way in the area having been there in the past. It is hard to believe they are the only poachers who have ever operated in the national park, and it is doubted if poaching in the national park have been closely monitored or if there are still several poaching fleets operating up to this day.

The national park and its’ biodiversity also face threats from domestic fishermen and poachers, as these groups are known to employ illegal fishing methods such as cyanide fishing and dynamite fishing. Coral dredging is also thought to be done by these illegal fishermen. These methods cause serious damage to the national park and need to be stopped.

However, it is hard to pin the blame solely on the park rangers. They number to about one dozen, armed with rifles and simple motor boats – it is an almost impossible task to enforce the law by themselves. Not to mention the fact that the area of the entire national park is 970 sq. km., one third larger than the land area of Singapore.

Included in Proclamation 306 of Corazon Aquino was that protection of the national park is placed under the Department of National Defense (DND), surely with the Philippine Navy under their jurisdiction they can provide more potent defense to the reef than 12 underpaid park rangers? The Philippine Air Force may be under-equipped, but surely they have the logistics to conduct surveillance on ship movements and potential poaching vessels inside the national park?

Indeed the task of protecting the reef requires a lot of work, but with the beauty and environmental significance it presents it certainly is worth all that effort. Tubbataha National Park is an important Philippine treasure, it is a treasure that is envied by our neighbors – not to mention, a very attractive tourist spot to offer the world. President Noynoy Aquino should take the initiative to preserve it, give it as much importance as his mother did. It is a Filipino heritage from nature, and we should ensure that we can preserve it for our future generations to enjoy.

Further Reading

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