WWF’s marine police: Saving the Sulu Sea
By Gina Mission

Sulu sea fish examiner at work.

They neither belong to the Philippine Navy or the Philippine National Police. But the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in a break-away workshop at the 3rd Civicus World Assembly, called them the "marine police."

___In the sleepy town of Cagayancillo in Sulu, live eight people who were trained to be the first "marine police" of the Sulu Sea's Turtle Island and Tubbataha Reef. Seven of them are locally-hired Jama Mapuns (a Muslim ethnic group), four are environmental protection officers and fish wardens, and the other four, fish examiners. Their mission is to help protect the Sulu Sea and its rich biodiversity from further destruction.

___Lying at the center of the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha Reef is a 33,200-hectare expanse of diverse corals, fish, marine mammals, birds and invertebrates. According to WWF, 300 coral species, 46 coral genera, seven species of sea grass and 71 species of algae compose the rich diversity of the reefs. Tubbataha's marine biodiversity is virtually unparalleled by any other area in the world today. Large marine life is often present on (or at the edge of) the reef. These include sharks, manta rays, tuna, and jackfish. In addition, four species of dolphins and two species of marine turtles inhabit the surrounding waters. The area is also a breeding and resting ground for several species of seabirds.

___Owing to its small size and remoteness, Tubbataha, to this day, remains uninhabited although numerous fishermen have been known to set up camp in the area between the months of February and July. Aside from the fishing population, the only other regular groups of visitors to the reef are scuba diving enthusiasts.

___Turtle Island, located within the Sulu-Celebes region, on the other hand, is host to rare species of turtles. A territory shared by the Philippines and Malaysia, Turtle Island is Southeast Asia's only remaining major green turtle hatchery. WWF says that it is also a vital nesting ground for the hawksbill turtle. Because it is in the sea turtles' nature to have fixed nesting sites, they cannot interbreed with other populations of even the same species.

___According to WWF, turtles are a valuable source of income in the islands. Their eggs are popularly known to be both medicinal and aphrodisiac.

Turtle Island dwellers: looking for safer home.

___At the same time, the importance of Tubbataha to the Philippine islands cannot be understated: most fish and invertebrate larvae, says WWF, originate from the Reef. If destroyed, the food supply of the entire Sulu Sea area, including Palawan and parts of the Visayas, would be tragically compromised. Philippine marine life, according to WWF project manager, Ajip Rye, will suffer without the Tubbataha Reef. "Without the flow of fish and invertebrate larvae coming from the reefs, marine life on the coral reefs of mainland Palawan and nearby islands would inevitably deteriorate," he said.

___Unfortunately, both Turtle Island and Tubbataha Reef have fallen prey to the destructive marine practices of humans. Some people from Sulu and nearby Malaysia sell turtle eggs by the hundreds, endangering the existing turtles and their eggs. There has been an 88 per cent drop in green turtle egg production within a span of 39 years, and local extinction, according to WWF, is imminent.

___Tubbataha Reef is not spared from destruction, either. "Fishermen from the Philippines, as well as nearby Taiwan and Hong Kong, frequent the Reef to gather fish using destructive methods. Careless divers and boat anchors damage the corals. Many of them also kill sea turtles and harm the bird populations while taking turtle eggs, giant clams and beautiful shells," said Rye.

___The number of illegal fishermen exploiting the resources of the Reef is steadily increasing. Majority are resorting to destructive methods like dynamite and cyanide fishing. Other "crimes" against the ecosystem include damage to coral communities from careless divers and wayward anchors, illegal tours by collectors (turtle eggs, bird eggs, shells), dogshark fishing, and the wanton murder of sea turtles.

___A 1995 survey conducted by Silliman University and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) revealed that coral cover and fish density in the Reef are "decreasing at an alarming rate" despite the site's official status as a protected National Marine Park.

___In 1988, Tubbataha was declared as the first National Marine Park by former Philippine President Corazon Aquino by virtue of Presidential Proclamation number 306. According to WWF, much attention was then focused on the area and various destructive activities were brought into the open. In 1993, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Tubbataha as a World Heritage Site. The declaration strengthened the government's commitment to conserve the area and increased international awareness and support for its protection.

___In 1995, then-President Fidel V. Ramos issued a memorandum circular creating the Task Force for the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park. In 1996, the Interim Action Plan formulated by the Task Force was terminated due to lack of funds.

___In the same year, WWF Philippines launched a public awareness campaign and a research and monitoring project to solicit public participation in the effort to conserve Tubbataha.

___Seeing little impact of the previous Sulu Sea conservation projects, WWF launched in January this year its ultimate weapon against marine destruction -- protecting the vibrant ecosystem of Turtle Island and Tubbataha Reef from further damage, while at the same time developing livelihood alternatives for affected communities within the area.

___For this purpose, WWF has conducted para-legal training, fish examination and patrolling among the local folk, most of who belong to the Jama Mapun tribe. The intention, according to Rye, is to deputize local folk as law enforcers and to raise the communities' awareness level about the existing laws on fisheries and environmental protection.

___"If they know the law, anybody can inform the ‘marine police’ of any violator, and thus action can be taken immediately," explained Rye. "At the same time," he added, "everybody can act as the other's keeper and watcher. Dynamite fishing and other destructive fishing practices can then hopefully be avoided."

___By initiating these activities, WWF hopes to increase the local folk’s fish yield and provide them more access to these marine resources. "Hopefully, these will beef up the people's knowledge of the issue, as well as their capability in terms of patrolling and surveillance of their own seas. They will also be trained to establish their own system of charging violators or illegal fishers, from the filing of cases to handling of evidence," said Rye.

___Last year, local folk caught a Chinese vessel illegally fishing within the restricted 15-kilometer radius from the seashore. But the municipal court of Jolo, for lack of evidence, dismissed the case. "It wasn't that there was not enough evidence. But the complainants and their lawyers were not able to handle their case well," Rye said.

___"Looking at the blasted areas of the Sulu Sea gives the impression that it's only a matter of time before everything is totally destroyed," Rye lamented. The government, he said, while taking a strong position against illegal fishers, could really be expected to be aggressive and totally committed in its efforts. And, in all honesty, he doesn't think the marine police can do that much beyond "enhancing the enforcement presence."

___With only three years as the project's timetable, the marine police are racing against time to save the Sulu Sea.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.09.30