How Tubbataha was saved
Shimmering shafts of sunlight illuminate a dreamlike scene. In the distance, a school of silver jacks flow over the reef, while nearby two large green turtles casually cruise above a carpet of hard corals bustling with anthias. Among the patches of sand, white tip reef sharks rest while the larger grey reef sharks patrol over the drop-off. This to me, is the epitome of how a healthy reef should look but here at Tubbataha, in the Philippines, this was not always the case. This utopia has been hard fought for.
Tubbataha, being exposed far out in the Sulu Sea and uninhabitable, was for millennia naturally protected against over-exploitation. With calm seas between only March and June, a natural quota was enforced on the fishing grounds. That was until the arrival of motorised fishing vessels in the 80s followed quickly by the industrialised fishing fleets. Suddenly Tubbataha’s rich bounty became an easily reachable target with abundant fish stocks, in a country where other fishing grounds were rapidly in decline. Along with the conventional fishermen, so arrived those that used dynamite and cyanide. And so began the destruction of paradise.
Fall and Rise
Today the trees that adorn the islet of Tubbataha’s lighthouse are dense with rare seabirds. Beneath them, dark oval shadows move slowly back and forth across the lagoon. These are endangered hawksbill and green turtles and they are here in abundance, safe from everything except their natural predator - the tiger sharks that occasionally show up.
This place has indeed been pulled back from the brink and that is due to a group of forward thinking divers and conservationists that stepped in to prevent Tubbataha’s destruction. Realising the importance of this unique reef - the only true atoll structure in the Philippines - they lobbied the government with a well-organised campaign and in 1988 Tubbataha became the first national marine park in the Philippines.
UNESCO followed in 1993, declaring it a World Heritage Site due to its outstanding universal value, exceptional natural beauty and significance for protected species. Over the coming years as the protection and enforcement strengthened, Tubbataha recovered and today the reefs are simply wonderful.
The importance of these decisions cannot be overstated. This 97,030-hectare marine park is home to a staggering 360 species of coral and 600 species of fish. On the small islets, more than 100 different species of bird have been recorded, including the endangered Christmas Island frigatebird.
The protection afforded to Tubbataha makes it one of the last known safe breeding habitats in Southeast Asia for seabirds with seven species nesting here.
Studies have proven that the reefs found in these two huge coral atolls and the nearby Jessie Beazley reef are key sources of coral and fish larvae and they actually help seed the surrounding Sulu Sea. If this area had been destroyed the cascading effect would have been incalculable.
Divers, who were key to initiating the protection of these reefs, continue to play the major part in Tubbataha’s ongoing protection. Money raised from the park entrance fees and diving permits is translated directly into enforcement initiatives that protect the park from today’s threats, and educational initiatives that help prevent the threats of tomorrow.
Dive tourism actually contributes no less than 54 per cent of the revenue of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, with the rest of the funds coming largely from allocations from government and private sector donations. For example, the radar at the ranger station was paid for by funds donated by Swiss luxury watchmaker Jaeger LeCoultre.
The enduring appeal of this place to divers is obvious. Steep walls that rise from abyssal depths characterise the diving here, with some so steep they are even inverted. Many are adorned with colossal barrel sponges that hang precariously in defiance of the strong currents that whip over the reefs, bringing nutrients, and helping to spread Tubbatahas goodness to other parts of the Sulu Sea.
The sponges compete with huge sea fans for space on often densely packed walls, and as you ascend to the edge of the drop off it’s here that you may encounter the pelagics – visiting whale sharks, mantas, mobulas and even great hammerheads are drawn towards these atolls.
The reef tops are carpets of hard and leather coral and home to the schooling fish that Tubbataha has become famous for: trevally, barracuda, humphead parrotfish and batfish all congregate between the shallows and the edge of the reef. Every dive on Tubbataha is different, some dives quiet, some dives electric – as you enter the water, you simply don’t know what’s going to turn up.
The challenges of overfishing and poor reef stewardship have long been a struggle for the Philippine nation, yet the Tubbataha lighthouse now stands as a symbol of hope that this country can learn from its previous mistakes and preserve its natural heritage for future generations. The question that remains, is can the rest of the world do the same?
KEEPING WATCH OVER THE REEFS
'Secluded, lonely and thoroughly essential' are the terms that describe life for the 12 rangers that form the front line in keeping Tubbataha safe from unwanted visitors. During their two-month long tours this multi-skilled team patrols the reefs, briefs tourists and help with scientific research, operating under guidelines laid down by the Tubbataha management board.
They have to deal with frequent illegal fishing intrusions into these waters, which in particular try to harvest top shells, which are sought after souvenirs.
Tourists bring welcome company, and spirits were high when I visited - a patrol had just returned having had a close encounter with a large tiger shark in the lagoon. Visits from apex predators are no less exciting for the rangers than they are for the rest of us!
Angelique M Songco once worked as a divemaster on boats that visited Tubbataha and witnessed first hand the threat to these reefs. For the past 15 years she has headed up the Tubbataha Management Office, leading an organisational model that other conservation efforts in the coral triangle aspire to - she talks to Steve about her job
When did you become aware of the importance of the marine environment in this region and the need to protect it?
When I first came to Tubbataha in 1982 the reefs were in very good condition and fish life was profuse. Over the coming years we could see the reefs degrading and we knew something had to be done before Tubbataha was lost forever. The Presidential proclamation in 1988 was a lifeline for Tubbataha, but it was going to take years of protection before the area would start to recover. Real enforcement did not come until 2000 when the ranger station was set up and in parallel we’ve been developing our conservation model constantly to improve the protection for this unique area and respond to emerging threats.
Please tell us about the vision and approach of conservation efforts in this region
Our vision is to ensure that Tubbataha is protected in order to maintain ecological integrity, sustain economic development and contribute to the equitable distribution of benefits. We do this through responsible stewardship and partnerships with interested parties, including governmental organisations, the educational sector and the private sector. We have a guiding principle of participation and recognise the support of the locals is paramount if we are to succeed.
What alternatives exist for local fishermen and villagers that have been affected by loss of fishing rights?
Maintaining the support of the fishermen is one of our biggest challenges! We support the poor communities affected by loss of fishing rights with 10 per cent of tourism revenues from the park for livelihood activities that support education, health, basic commodities and emergency needs. However, from the time that Tubbataha became a 'no-take' zone, the local Cagayanon fishermen started to observe increased fish catch in surrounding waters and they began to view marine reserves as a way to increase the productivity of their reefs, some declaring protected areas in their own municipality. In this way, Cagayanons have been empowered to protect and manage their own reefs and contribute to wider efforts to save coral reefs in the Sulu Sea. Seaweed farming is also being encouraged as an alternative to fishing, and farmers are given support for their new businesses.
Education forms a key principle of your conservation programme – tell us about how it became so prominent?
Our educational outreach programmes have been running for the last five years and we have prioritised communities that have fishermen who have been arrested in Tubbataha. Most fishermen take it well, even though in one of the villages the majority of them had been arrested! Their issues were clarified, however a recent study has indicated that while compliance is high, some of the fishermen only comply because they are afraid of being arrested again, thus proving that enforcement is needed as a key principle along with education.
Does conservation feature in the day-to-day education within schools and do they teach the value of the marine ecosystem for the long-term well being of the Philippines?
Yes this is being developed and we are working with the Department of Education to integrate modules on conservation and climate change in the curriculum of students.
What are the notable successes so far?
We have many successes we are proud of. The passing of the Tubbataha law in 2010 was a key milestone. We’ve achieved our objectives with coral cover and the population of fish and seabirds has also increased. We are also extremely proud that Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is featured on our highest denomination of currency, the 1,000 Peso note, as it indicates national pride in this World Heritage Site
What are the top threats to the region?
Of the ones outside of our control and enforcement, one of the top threats is marine debris and this is increasing. We have seen strangled birds even in the last few weeks. Increased ship traffic also increases the risk of oil spills, ships’ groundings and debris. Climate change is a huge threat that we are powerless against: Currently the water temperature is 29 to 31 degrees. At this temperature, coral bleaching can occur.
Finally, what is your perspective on the overall outlook for Tubbataha?
The potential impact of rising water temperatures is our biggest fear. Despite all our efforts if the temperatures continue to rise we will lose so much of our successes and there will be nothing we can do about it. Our organisational outlook is healthy and we have solid support from key partners.
More of Steve’s work can be seen at www.millionfish.com