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.
With enriched knowledge on the concepts of marine conservation and enhanced communication skills, the participants of this year’s Training of Trainers (TOT) proved that they are ready to be champions of environmental awareness as they successfully conducted a community outreach activity in Bgy. Manalo, Puerto Princesa City last Saturday, July 2nd.
It was the highlight of their four-day training with the theme “Communicating Marine Conservation”. Sixteen participants from various partner agencies demonstrated their new learnings to the community through environmental talks, songs, dances, skits, jingles, and games that they developed. The Tubbataha Youth Ambassadors, Philippine Coast Guard District – Palawan, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, DENR, PCSD, and the Tubbataha Management Office sent their representatives to the training. The activity was made possible through financing from the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, Inc.
The newest environmental champions are: Tubbataha Youth Ambassadors Hanniel S. Almasco, Jannica R. Aurelio, Kim Cymer L. Dela Cruz, Davidde Kyle P. Venturillo Tubbataha Management Office Jumaiyah P. Macalabo, Rosalie Anne O. Tarrobago PCG District – Palawan SN2 Oliver M. Mazo PCG, SN2 Ivan Luisian L. Pabalan PCG Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park Mary Ann B. Andrade, Jan Elmer I. Badilla, Anchovy T. Barros, Sherry Anne A. Valdez WWF-Philippines Phoebejean H. Aludia DENR – CENRO Puerto Princesa Elany P. Sanico DENR – PENRO Palawan Lauri Rose S. Coquia Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Ai Nhi R. Trudeau, and Ian Christian A. Vega.
They are hardly found anywhere else in the country, but their presence in the Tubbataha Reefs makes it possible to generate greater understanding of their kind. A team of researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Project – Philippines (LAMAVE) and the Tubbataha Management Office successfully tagged two tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) in the Park during Expedition Shark 2 on 11 to 19 June.
The tiger sharks, listed as Near Threatened (NT) in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, were both caught in successive days in the South Atoll off the Delsan Wreck dive site. A baited fishing line about 60 meters deep with a barbless hook at the end was used to catch the sharks. Both the captured tiger sharks measured more than three meters long and each are estimated to weigh more than 340 kilograms (www.FishBase.org).
Dr. Alessandro Ponzo from LAMAVE – Philippines embedded an acoustic tag in one of the tiger sharks. This type of tag will send ‘pings’ to three acoustic receivers strategically moored in different spots around the park once the tagged individual comes within a 500 to 800-meter radius. A fin-mount tag was installed on the dorsal fin of the second tiger shark. While the acoustic tag works only within the park, the fin-mount tag will send signals to a nearby satellite once the tagged tiger shark surfaces anywhere in the world. Both of the tags are expected to produce information on the location and movement of the sharks. These information will be useful in understanding the dynamics of how the sharks use Tubbataha as a habitat, their range, and the potential areas of concern in the protection of the species.
After embedding the tags, tissue samples were collected from the pelvic fin of the sharks. These will be used for genetic connectivity studies in order to contribute to an ongoing global research on sharks. Visible parasites were also removed and collected. The sharks were measured and their gender verified before being released from the hook and ropes which secured them beside the patrol boat. These were carried out on a time span of between 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size and behavior of the shark. Aside from the two tiger sharks, five grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) were also hooked and embedded with acoustic tags. All of the sharks showed normal activity after release as great efforts were made to reduce the stress of the animals during the procedure.
The team also carried out Underwater Visual Surveys (UVS) for elasmobranchs. Last year’s UVS revealed that Tubbataha has the highest density of whitetip reef and grey reef sharks in the world. Sharks and other apex predators are vital to functional marine food webs and to the health of the marine environment in general. By maintaining the normal abundance of species below their trophic level, sharks facilitate balanced competition between lower groups, therefore improving the species diversity within an area. The research team cruised the Sulu Sea onboard WWF’s research vessel, M/Y Navorca. The crew of M/Y Navorca were most helpful in ensuring the success of the study.
Upon the request of Coast Guard District Palawan (CGD-PAL), thirty of its personnel are currently undergoing training to prepare them for assignment to the Tubbataha Reefs. The training puts a stress on marine conservation because it is the focus of their duties in the Park. The training also includes law enforcement protocols that apply to the Park. Interpersonal skills development is another topic that is discussed because being isolated in Tubbataha for two months with strangers requires good relational abilities.
CGD-Palawan, Pilipinas Shell foundation, Inc. (PSFI), and the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) provided counterpart funds to provide this capacity development opportunity for future marine park rangers in Tubbataha.
With just days before the last research trip to Tubbataha Reefs this year, here are some details on the successful previous trips.
Tubbataha Coral Health Assessment – 23 to 29 April
For the first time since its establishment, the health of corals in the Tubbataha Reefs were assessed by none other than experts specializing in coral health. In partnership with the University of Guam (UG) and the Silliman University – Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences (SU-IEMS), Dr. Alexander Kerr, Dr. Laurie Raymundo, and Dr. Aileen Maypa gave a closer look to the regular benthos monitoring sites used by the Tubbataha Management Office in their benthos surveys. The grounding sites of USS Guardian and M/Y Min Ping Yu were also examined in an attempt to make comparisons on disease prevalence between reefs which underwent stress (grounding sites) and remote healthy reef areas (benthos monitoring sites). Parameters considered were diseases, bleaching, predation, and physical damage.
The study was made possible through the support of Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc., a long-time partner of TMO in conserving the Tubbataha Reefs. M/V Discovery Palawan also contributed to the study through the provision of berths for the scientists at highly discounted rates. A detailed report is expected to come out in the following months.
Water Quality Sample Collection and Analysis – 15 to 19 April
The second edition of the new program was supported by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS). The needed expertise in collecting and analyzing the water samples were made available to the TMO through Ms. Marianne Faith Perez and Ms. Jenevieve Hara. This year’s results are expected to back-up the 2014 findings which led to some management actions and considerations such as conducting sample collection and analysis during tourism off season (December 2014 – February 2015).
The same expedition also served as a familiarization trip for two members of the new ranger station construction team from Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA). Mr. Domingo Sanchez and Mr. David John Pontiga both experienced snorkeling in the pristine waters of Tubbataha after doing their site visit on the proposed new ranger station area. A report on water quality will come out together with the TMO annual monitoring report.
Fish and Benthos Monitoring – 28 April to 05 May
Since 1998, monitoring of fish and coral communities has been part of the research program of TMO with the help of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). M/Y Navorca, WWF’s research vessel and a regular traveler in the Sulu Sea, housed researchers from TMO, De La Salle University (DLSU), University of the Philippines – Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), and UP-Tacloban. Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan (DLSU) led the coral research team together with Retchie Pagliawan, Rowell Alarcon, Noel Bundal (TMO), Eznairah Jeung Narida, Regina Abesamis, and Regine Robles (DLSU).
The fish research team was headed by Prof. Jerome Cabansag (UP-Tacloban) with Segundo Conales Jr, Roy Magbanua, Jeffrey David, Jeric Dejucos (TMO) and Denmark Recamara (UP-MSI), . A change in the sampling area size was made in the fish research in accordance with new national standards. The said researches are focused on monitoring live coral cover, benthic composition, fish biomass, and fish density and abundance; in which the management success of TMO are based and measured. Reports will come out in the annual Ecosystem Research and Monitoring Report of TMO.
Seabirds Inventory Census – 07 to 12 May
The all-time high in terms of total count of seabirds was the highlight of this year’s census. Some ‘first time’ observations also made this year’s trip special – the hatching of Black and Brown Noddy eggs at the 2nd quarter of the year, and the unusual ground nesting of the Black Noddy which is a known tree nester. Mr. Arne Jensen, TMO’s long-time ornithologist consultant, once again led the team together with Dr. Teri Aquino.
Other ornithologists who volunteered their service were Juan Carlos Gonzales of University of the Philippines – Los Banos, Godfrey Jakosalem and Lisa Paguntalan of the Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc., Christian Perez of Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, and Rommel Cruz of Bird Watch Palawan. The TMO research team and some of the Marine Park Rangers also participated in the census. The seabird report will be part of the annual Ecosystem Research and Monitoring Report of TMO.
On 02 June 2015, the TMO research team will once again gear up for the last installment of the research season, the Turtle Tagging and Laparoscopy to be led by Dr. Nicholas Pilcher. This will conclude TMO’s research trips to Tubbataha this year.