The Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), during its 4th Session held on 6-10 March 2017, approved the ‘establishment of a new area to be avoided (ATBA) as an associated protective measure for the “Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) in the Sulu Sea” (the Philippines)’. Having acquired NCSR support, it is expected that the Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC), which meets on 3-7 July 2017, will approve the application of the Philippines for PSSA.
The PSSA application for Tubbataha was first discussed in 2002, when the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) funded multi-sectoral meeting where PSSA establishment was considered as a solution the potential negative impacts of international shipping. The Centre provided funding to pursue the application in 2012 enabling TMO to consult with the University of the Philippines-Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (UP-IMLOS) for technical assistance. Several multi-stakeholder meetings were held
The Philippine Coast Guard, the Department of Foreign Affairs, specifically the Embassy in London, the Tubbataha Management Office and UP-IMLOS spearheaded the application process. MEPC organized the first ever regional meeting of the IMO in Manila in 2014. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources was also involved in earlier efforts. When finally established as a PSSA, Tubbataha will be the first in Southeast Asia, a tribute to the numerous agencies, local and international, that are committed to protect this marine jewel from harm.
The Sub-committee on Navigation, Communications, and Search and Rescue (NCSR) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved our country’s proposal to establish Tubbataha as an Area to be Avoided (ATBA) in the Sulu Sea.
With the ATBA as an Associated Protective Measure (APM), ship masters sailing through the Sulu Sea must not enter the Tubbataha Reefs. The said approval was due to the decision of the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) to approve the designation, in principle, of Tubbataha as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) during its session in 2016. The ATBA designation of Tubbataha will greatly reduce the risk of ship groundings and would allow for more time to respond to incidents like ships adrift, accidental discharges, and oil/chemical spills.
The decision on the ATBA will be endorsed to the next meeting of the MEPC (71) on July 3 to 7 this year for the final designation of Tubbataha as a PSSA. God willing, the PSSA designation will officially take effect on January 2018 after a six-month period of notifying the global shipping industry.
At present, about 30% of all vessels spotted in the radar stationed in the Ranger Station traverse inside the 10-nautical mile buffer zone of Tubbataha. When the ATBA takes effect, ships will start deviating to ensure they do not enter these boundaries. The Philippines is on track to become the first country to establish a PSSA in Southeast Asia, leading in the field of marine environment protection.
The agencies involved in the application for PSSA designation of Tubbataha with the IMO are: the Philippine Coast Guard, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Marine Environmental Protection Committee of the IMO, and the Tubbataha Management Office, with UP-Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea’s Atty. Jay Batongbacal as technical expert.