Though long touted as one of the world’s richest bastions for marine biodiversity, a scant 5% of Philippine coral reefs are consideredexcellent – meaning hard, reef-building corals cover at least three-fourths of a given reef.

Marine habitats close to human communities are typically overfished and degraded, while those situated in remote areas are protected by their relative isolation.

Reef Assessor by TMO & Weng AlarconPalawan’s famed Tubbataha Reefs benefit from the fact that the nearest major landmass sits 160 kilometers northwest. Battered by strong storms and swells nine months yearly, the 97,030-hectare Natural Park can only be visited from March to May, when recreational divers and researchers flock to study thriving populations of birds, fish and invertebrates.

Last 17 January 2013, the tranquility of Tubbataha’s closed season was interrupted when the USS Guardian, a US Navy Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, ran aground on Tubbataha’s southern atoll. Seven ships were quickly brought in to cut up and recover the vessel.

While the salvage flotilla completes the extrication process, the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) is currently forming an assessment team to determine the total area damaged by the warship.

Experts from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), National Institute of Physics (NIP), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), De Lasalle University (DLSU-SHIELDS) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) shall sail to Tubbataha in early April to ascertain coral reef damage and check if restoration efforts are feasible.

A multi-awarded UNESCO World Heritage site which celebrates its Silver Anniversary in 2013, Tubbataha boasts of unparalleled biodiversity levels. Whereas a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef annually yields up to 40 metric tonnes of seafood yearly, the area generates over 200. Though fishing within the park is not allowed, the spillover effects continually seed the far reaches of the Sulu Sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.
“WWF lauds the composite team for the successful extrication of the USS Guardian. With the first step accomplished, we now move on to assessment,” says WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “The results will give us an objective basis for the fines that must be collected not just to expedite reef recovery but to upgrade our capacity to conserve our country’s most productive reef system.”

The assessment team is composed of TMO Park Superintendent Angelique Songco, Dr. Maricor Soriano from the National Institute of Physics, WWF-Philippines Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager Marivel Dygico, Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, Dr. Cesar Villanoy, Miledel Quibilan, Patrick Cabaitan, Narida Eznairah and Norievill España from UP MSI, plus November Romena and Elsa Furio from BFAR.

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Under Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, a fine of about $300 or P12,000 per square meter is mandatory, plus another $300 or so per square meter for rehabilitation efforts. If the damaged area covers 4000 square meters, total fines might exceed $5 million or P200 million.

Explains Tubbataha Reefs Park Superintendent Angelique Songco, “This is not the first grounding incident in the park – all previous cases paid the appropriate fines for damages.  We will not ask for anything more than what the law requires. We wish only for the US Navy to be responsible enough when entering our protected areas. However, we are quite confident that the United States Navy – an institution long held in high esteem for its strict adherence to honor and duty – shall honor the rule of law.”

In 2011, the US Navy paid the state of Hawaii $15 million or P610 million for a 2009 grounding incident which obliterated about 890 square meters of coral reef near O’ahu. 

CAPTIONS FOR ATTACHED IMAGERY:

TMO diver-researcher Segundo Conales inspects a patch of coral in Palawan, the Philippines. TMO and WWF recently underwent a weeklong workshop to assess coral reefs using Reefcheck International methods. The assessment team is slated to sail to Tubbataha this 2 April 2013. (Weng Alarcon / TMO Archives)

Flattened swathes of hard coral may eventually be smothered by outbreaks of filamentous algae. When this happens, coral recruits will have a difficult time establishing new coral colonies. The presence of herbivorous fish like tangs and rabbitfish serve to keep the algae at bay. (WWF-Philippines)

For further information:

Marivel Dygico
Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager, WWF-Philippines
mdygico@wwf.org.ph