In the heart of the Sulu Sea, Philippines, at the geographic center of world marine biodiversity, lies an underwater nature reserve that is considered both a mecca for scuba divers and model for coral reef conservation.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a 97,030-hectare marine protected area (MPA) in the province of Palawan. It is located 150km southeast of Puerto Princesa City. The Park is composed of two coral atolls – the North and the South Atoll – and the Jessie Beazley Reef, a smaller coral structure about 20 kilometres north of the atolls.
The reefs of Tubbataha and Jessie Beazley are considered part of Cagayancillo, a remote island municipality roughly 130 kilometers to the northeast, inhabited mainly by fisherfolk.
Charting the Tubbataha Reefs
It appears from historical records that Spanish ship captain Antonio Faveau y Quesada, through an expedition in 1752-1753, was the first European explorer to “discover”, name and chart Tubbataha Reefs. Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), the Hydrographer of the British East India Company and the first Hydrographer of the British Admiralty pursued the work, relying in part on indigenous navigators in making his charts.
It was from his records that we learn of the meaning of Tubbataha. He records that a 90-year old ‘pilot’ told him that the Samal words, tuba and taha means “a long reef exposed at low tide“. Maps during that era showed: “Toob Bataha part dry at low water”, with “Rocks as large as Boats”.
Tubbataha lies within the island municipality of Cagayancillo, which today is in the province of Palawan. But until the mid-19th century Cagayancillo was a pueblo (municipality after 1810) in the province of Antique (previously the Malay sakup of Hantik), on the west side of the island of Panay.
In 1858 Tubbataha became part of the newly-created province of Balabac, which was subsequently merged with the new province of Puerto Princesa to form the province of Paragua (renamed Palawan in 1903). (All the above information is from the Philippine Map Collectors Society, courtesy of Peter Gedart).
History of Exploitation and Protection
However, the people more tightly bound to Tubbataha are the Cagayanons, inhabitants of the neighboring islands of Cagayancillo. Traditionally, during the summer months when the sea was calm, they would sail in their native “pangko”, to visit the abundant fishing grounds of Tubbataha, which they called “Gusong” or “reef”.
Tubbataha’s isolation was its best protection against over-exploitation; the reefs are far from habitable land – although there are two islets in Tubbataha, they have no source of fresh water. They are also exposed to the tropical storms associated with the northeast monsoon from November to March and the southwest monsoon between July and October.
However, by the 1980s, increasing numbers of Filipino fishermen had motorized bangkas, reaching Tubbataha faster. Around this time, fish stocks in more accessible areas were rapidly declining due to over-fishing. The rich waters of Tubbataha soon became the most lucrative fishing destination. Fishers using destructive techniques, such as cyanide and dynamite fishing to maximize catch exploited the Park.
Alarmed at the rapid degradation of the reefs, the scuba diving community campaigned for it protection. In 1988, with the endorsement of the Provincial Government of Palawan, then President Corazon Aquino declared Tubbataha as a no-take national marine park – the first of its kind in the country.
Republic Act 10067
RA 10067, otherwise known as the TRNP Act of 2009, was enacted on 06 April 2010. It established Tubbataha as a natural park under the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act (R.A.7586) and the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan Act (R.A. 7600). It provides the main legal framework for the management of Tubbataha with other relevant laws, such as the NIPAS and SEP Acts, the Fisheries Code and Wildlife Act, supplementing the TRNP Act.