Predators now protectors
of Tubbataha marine park

The exploding colors of Tubbataha reef. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

In Tubbataha, the colors of the sea explode. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

RANGER STATION, TUBBATAHA REEFS – At around noon each day, eight strapping young men wait for Valerie to make her appearance. Her daily entrance, coming almost like clockwork, is what makes their day.

“That’s Valerie, sir,” Navy PO2 Jonathan Lobo says proudly as a dark shadow swims underneath the posts that hold up this ranger station. Even at some distance, her large disk-like shape, with the four flippers where arms and legs should be, is unmistakable.

Valerie is certainly no mermaid, but she is the only four-limbed female (and even the gender is an assumption, but it seemed impolite to point that out) within miles around that the men ever get to interact with.

She is, in fact, a Hawksbill sea turtle – hardly the stuff of any man’s fantasy, but then here everything else has fins, feathers, or gills.

That the men – park rangers sworn to protect the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) and World Heritage Site – choose to turn their affections toward a critically endangered species that dates back 215 million years can mean any of two things: that the park rangers are really serious about their job or that they miss their wives, girlfriends, and families terribly. Since the rangers volunteered to be marooned here for the next two months, it is probably a little of both.

For eight weeks straight, these eight men will live on a small, prefabricated structure 15 meters long by six meters wide, perched on stilts in the middle of the Sulu Sea, with little to protect them from winds, waves, or marauding pirates. Their only lifeline to the rest of the human world is a small portable satellite phone and a temperamental long-range radio. A few hours each day, the tide goes down, and a small spit of powdery white sand emerges underneath, and the station becomes an island atop a temporary island. Most of the time, though, there is nothing but the endless grey and blue of water and sky on all sides of the compass. The isolation is complete.

That’s until one dives beneath the waves and into the world the park rangers are protecting: Tubbataha, where the sea explodes in such a brilliant frenzy of color and life that it is difficult to decide where to look first. Turtles that speed off like race cars, sharks that feed peacefully, clownfish that pout, and corals that bloom like flowers.

Stakeholders all

Tubbataha is the country’s only national marine park, and the rangers’ isolated outpost is just one leg of a modest yet resourceful and determined network of government and non-government agencies, and environmental groups that have taken it upon themselves to become primary stakeholders in its preservation. But the Tubbataha experience is also a story of the empowerment of local stakeholders, and one of the best examples of private-public partnerships for any protected area, motivating not just bureaucrats and environmentalists, but ordinary volunteers as well.

For one, there’s Segundo ‘Seconds’ Conales, whose family used to be among the local folk who made a living out of practically every bit (from clams to corals) they could get out of Tubbataha. Yet for more than a decade now, he has been one of its most dedicated protectors.

It’s a job that once had him counting about 10 whitetip sharks circling him as he was going about his regular duty of monitoring the many species of fish in Tubbataha. Since he started out as a research assistant for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1998, Conales had gotten used to having one or two of the grey, slender-bodied predators accompany his dives, but never this many at one time, all of them checking him out.

Guarding the seas is hard work. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

Guarding the seas is hard work. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

There are at least 12 shark species in the Tubbataha. While Conales’s research and experience taught him that this particular species is non-territorial and rarely aggressive toward divers, three unprovoked attacks elsewhere by whitetips were recorded in 2008. Conales did not want to add to the statistic, and slowly, cautiously swam to the water’s surface unharmed, in what seemed like an eternity.

The encounter would have been enough to keep anyone out of the water for a long time, but not for Conales. When PCIJ met him in late July 2010, Conales, now the most senior park ranger stationed in Tubbataha, gamely jumped into the water to give the visitors a brief tour of his kingdom. During the dive, inevitably, he bumped into another shark.

To be exact, Conales and his team are charged with guarding 10,000 hectares of coral divided into the North and South Atoll. Thousands of years ago, these were really volcanic islands fringed by reefs. Over time, the islands sank and left only the reef formations that continued to grow upward, toward the sunlight.

Coral Triangle’s heart

The Reefs lie at the heart of the so-called Coral Triangle, a 647.5 million-hectare area spanning from the Philippines in the north to Australia in the south and Fiji in east, which is said to have the highest diversity of corals, fish, crustaceans, and plant species in the world.

A 2007 study by the University of the Philippines in the Visayas determined that the Tubbataha Reefs are “a major source of coral and fish larvae, seeding the greater Sulu sea.” In layman’s terms, it simply means that Tubbataha, Samal dialect for “long reef exposed at low tide,” is a giant fish factory that populates the rest of the seas around the Philippines and much of the region. For those who love figures, it is home to about 600 species of fish and some 359 species of corals, or half the world’s coral species.

Until the 1980s, Tubbataha was virtually unheard of, except to residents of Cagayancillo, the sixth-class Palawan island municipality that has political jurisdiction over the reefs. For generations, the Cagayanons were the only people who would exploit the natural resources of the reefs, travelling by boat for months at a time to fish here.

It helped that the reefs were so isolated. Tubbataha is 130 kilometers from Cagayancillo in the north, and 150 kilometers from the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, in the northwest.

But by the mid 1980s, visiting divers were already blowing hard on the tambuli. Modern boats with faster motors had discovered Tubbataha, and were mining its resources recklessly. Fishers from the faraway Visayan islands would travel all the way here to harvest endangered clams and sea creatures, and Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats would poach on the waters for anything that they could sell on the endangered species market. Most of the time, these poachers would use destructive fishing methods to make their catch, from cyanide to dynamite. Suddenly, there was a frenzy to exploit Tubbataha.

Cory Aquino fiat

The Reefs’ rescue began in 1988, when then President Corazon Aquino signed Proclamation No. 306 declaring Tubbataha a National Marine Park, and transferring jurisdiction over the area from the municipality of Cagayancillo to the national government. While the declaration was not enough, it was the first step in recognizing the importance of Tubbataha, not just to the ecosystem, but to the country’s economy as well.

As added impetus, in 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Reefs a World Heritage Site, meaning it is one of a select few areas or structures that have global significance. The declaration also forces the host country to abide by a UN convention that pledges protection of a heritage site.

President Fidel Ramos deployed the first complement of Tubbataha guards in 1996. Then, the guards’ shelter consisted of canvas tents supported by wooden poles. A wooden structure was built later, but with the shifting sands it could barely withstand the elements. These days, the park rangers are housed just a little more comfortably in a small dome of styrofoam, concrete, and wood, erected on steel beams on a sandy islet that is submerged most times at the edge of the North Atoll.

An island on an island. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

A few hours each day, the tide goes down, and a small spit of powdery white sand emerges underneath, and the station becomes an island atop a temporary island. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

Tubbataha is a “no-take zone”; no one is allowed to harvest any plant, sea creature, or bird from the area. But the rangers are practically on their own in carrying out their law enforcement role against illegal fishers, local and foreign.  The composite team of Navy personnel, Coast – keep watch over the radar for signs of unauthorized entry.

Most intercepts happen late at night. The rangers board each ship that enters the park, and inspect cargo, equipment, and passengers. All in all, the rangers have to patrol an area four times the size of Makati City, or the equivalent of 80,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, armed only with M16 rifles and two tiny patrol boats.

Conales has no qualms keeping his townmates out of Tubbataha. He also says that if the rangers ever do need reinforcements, they can call for assistance from Puerto Princesa – all of 150 kilometers away, or 12 grueling hours via fast-boat.

Poachers vs park rangers

Thankfully, better-armed poachers have avoided slugging it out with the park rangers, although there have been many tense moments in the past. And like all those who have adopted Tubbataha, the rangers have proven that the problem of lack of resources can be overriden by sheer grit, courage, dedication, and resourcefulness.

Tubbataha Park Superintendent Angelique Songco speaks proudly of her team of park rangers, researchers, scientists, and lawyers. “The difference is perhaps that for some people, this is just a job, but for us, it is a calling,” says Songco, who oversees the day-to-day management of the park from the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) in Puerto Princesa. Occasionally, she makes a quick visit to the park rangers to boost their morale.

Management of the park has gone through several transitions since its establishment as part of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) in 1988. But the decision to empower the local government units and turn them into active stakeholders is seen as one of the major success stories of protected areas all over the country.

First managed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in 1990, the Tubbataha marine park’s next handler was the private sector, via the Tubbataha Foundation. That experienced some initial successes, but its operation bogged down because many of the stakeholders and decision makers were in Manila.

Today the park is overseen by the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB), the policy-making body created in 1999 that consists of 20 partners from government and non-profit organizations, funding institutions, the academe, and the local community of Cagayancillo. The TMO headed by Songco acts as the executive arm of the board.

The board’s composition and size had sparked some initial debate, especially among bureaucrats more used to managing everything from Manila. But then everyone eventually realized that they all wanted to create more practical policies that would empower the locals.

The TPAMB executive committee now includes representatives from WWF – Philippines, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), which includes local government officials and environmentalists, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy, the NGO Saguda Palawan, and the DENR.

Strength in partnership

Songco says that the partners realized early on how it was inconceivable to have one agency alone manage the park that was literally in the middle of nowhere. Considering the sheer distance and isolation of the Tubbataha Reefs, “you tend to bind together to achieve objectives,” Songco says of the partners.

Lawyer Grizelda Anda of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) remarks that one good practice in the park’s management is the convergence among all stakeholders. “It’s good that you see a partnership within the management board,” she says of the strong participation of the partners, from the provincial government down to the people’s organizations.

Commodore Orwen Cortez of Naval Forces West also acknowledges the need for tight cooperation among Tubbataha’s stakeholders, since “the Navy is aware that we cannot do it alone.” Thus, the Navy shares the cost with the TMO in providing vessels for the relief trips to the ranger park.

Anda is proud of what she describes as the “no-nonsense enforcement work” in Tubbataha and the innovative strategies they have formulated in dealing with poaching cases, which have been compromised in the past.

It is a partnership that is often tested. Just this year, a coast guard vessel ran aground on the Reefs, supposedly while providing security for then presidential daughter Luli Arroyo during a scuba diving trip in Tubbataha. The Coast Guard ship damaged some 206 square meters of reef.

The TPAMB decided that if the law applies to everyone, then it should definitely apply to the enforcers as well. So even if the Coast Guard sits in the TPAMB and contributes two of its personnel as part of the ranger contingent, the Board fined the Coast Guard P2.5 million for the environmental damage its ship caused.

Local engagement

“The law does not discriminate, that if you are a partner, you can be exempted,” explains lawyer Adelle Villena, Legal Services Division head of the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

the Tubbataha experience has spurred a kind of local engagement rarely seen in other protected areas. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

the Tubbataha experience has spurred a kind of local engagement rarely seen in other protected areas. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

But more than anything, the Tubbataha experience has spurred a kind of local engagement rarely seen in other protected areas. The Palawan governor sits as the TPAMB chairman, while several local government and non-profit groups have distinct and major roles in the board. For example, other board members include representatives from the Philippine Commission on Sports and Scuba Diving, the Department of Tourism, the municipal government of Cagayancillo, and even the chairperson of the environmental committee of the Cagayancillo municipal council, and two local green groups, the Saguda Palawan and the Tambuli ta mga Cagayanon.

The role played by the Cagayanon deserves special mention; as the nearest community, they are the ones affected the most by the total ban on fishing and harvesting in Tubbataha. When it became a national park, the Cagayanon were effectively barred from harvesting anything from the greener pasture next door.

Songco admits that convincing the Cagayanon that the ban was for their own good was the most difficult part of the process of protecting and preserving Tubbataha. After all, Tubbataha had been their happy hunting grounds for generations. What tipped the balance, it seemed, was when the Cagayanon were told that the park “seeds” the Sulu Sea with fish, and its protection only meant more fish for fishers.

As an additional incentive, the municipality of Cagayancillo was guaranteed a share of the conservation fees collected from divers who visit Tubbataha. Ten percent of the fees go to the Cagayanon in the form of livelihood development assistance, while the remainder goes to park operations and a reserve kitty.

Sacrificing fishing

Senior park ranger Conales says his townmates were convinced to sacrifice their traditional fishing grounds because they were “provided livelihood such as micro-finance programs and the setting up of seaweed farms.”

Conales’s grandfather and uncle were earning much more raiding the Tubbataha reefs than what he now makes as one of the park’s protectors. The fact that people like him are willing to make the transition helps the park crack the whip against poachers. Still, everyone admits that bringing an ordinary fisherman to court is never easy.

“It’s the worst part of being manager,” Songco says of the need to apprehend local fisherfolk who are forced by hard times to violate the law. It is a testament to the success of the park that most of those apprehended now belong to faraway municipalities in Palawan and the Visayas.

What really compounds the problem is the issue of foreign poachers, especially Chinese. Park officials have filed several cases against large Chinese poachers, only to have the cases dismissed after the intercession of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Data from the PCSD, the state agency that handles poaching cases, shows apprehensions involving 140 Chinese nationals, 10 Taiwanese, and nine Filipinos from 1999 up to 2006. Poaching is prohibited under section 97 of the Philippine Fisheries Code (R.A. No. 8550) and carries a penalty of imprisonment of 12 to 20 years and/or a fine of up to P120,000.

But diplomacy has often gotten in the way of environmental protection, with demoralizing results. Paciano Gianan, TPAMB member and head of the Palawan Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, recalls how a Chinese consul even came to Palawan to personally berate him for filing poaching charges against Chinese fishermen. The violators were then let off the hook by the courts, again, on the urging of Manila.

Soft on Sino poachers

Enforcers, though, are hopeful that stronger laws and a new government that promises more transparency and accountability would make a difference. PCSD’s Villena, for instance, notes how it was unfair to be penalizing Filipinos for infractions of environmental laws even as Chinese nationals were being released because “our diplomatic policy is soft on the Chinese.”

Now, she says, “We’re more hopeful in the prosecution of cases because it covers all violations of environmental laws,” referring to the Supreme Court’s new rules of procedure for environmental cases. She adds that this may also result in the speedy disposition of environmental cases since “the new rules have been explained to judges and practitioners in a workshop, so they will understand why environmental cases should be prioritized.”

“It’s important to tap not only the province of Palawan, but the national media and the diving groups when we were assailing the way the poaching cases were mishandled,”  comments Anda. Despite the dismal record of cases involving Chinese poachers, she points to a slight improvement beginning in 2002 when the wider community became more vigilant and the courts became more sensitive to the public’s sentiments.

WWF-Philippines Project Manager Marivel Dygico also commends the perseverance of the team in going after all poachers, “even if you don’t get good results, and even if the justice (system) fails.”

Just last April, however, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009 was passed.  The new law not only sets a 10-mile buffer zone around the park perimeter, it also establishes a TRNP Trust Fund that will be dedicated solely for the park’s management.  As a result of this provision, Dygico expects to have “a better projection of its income and better planning and programming for the future.”

It’s been a challenge every step of the way, but the efforts of Tubbataha’s warriors have not been for naught. The WWF reports that the hard coral cover of Tubbataha increased from 40 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2005, a pretty healthy figure considering the agonizingly slow pace of growth of corals. Fish biomass, or the amount of fish in any given area, also doubled from 166 metric tons per square kilometer in 2004 to 318 metric tons per square kilometer in 2005, according to the WWF. In layman’s terms, there was twice as much fish in the area in the span of just a year.

Another good indicator for marine biologists, although not necessarily for nervous divers, is the increasing number of predatory fish such as sharks, a good sign that the Reefs are a good feeding ground for nature’s hunters.

Community benefits

But perhaps the best indication that Tubbataha’s conservation plan is working can be seen, not only on the impact on the fish and wildlife, but the impact on the people of Cagayancillo as well.

Not a few residents had complained when Tubbataha was declared a national park. But the WWF says that Cagayanons have actually been benefiting economically from the preservation of Tubbataha, either through the TPAMB-funded livelihood projects, or through the improving fish catch in their area.

A 2004 WWF study showed a noticeable upswing in the standards of living of the Cagayanons. For example, it said, lot ownership rose from 82 percent in 2000, to 86 percent in 2004; house ownership also went up for the same period, from 85 percent to 95 percent. There were many other positive indicators, says the study: “(The) number of users of kerosene lamps was reduced from 65 percent in 2000 to 50 percent in 2004… toilet ownership increased significantly from 46 percent to 56 percent.”

It was the ultimate paradox – in barring residents from exploiting their old fishing grounds, life actually got better for them.

For sure these developments can only encourage those who willingly leave their loved ones for weeks on end just so no harm would come to Valerie and the rest of Tubbataha’s residents. Conales, who will be spending his holidays away from home – for the sixth year in a row – because of his job, says, “Although it’s difficult, lonely and we’re far from our families we still do our job for future generations.”

But the WWF study also proves what Songco has been saying to those who used to depend on Tubbataha for their livelihood: “We just tell them, protect the sea, and that it’s all connected.” – PCIJ, December 2010