First, a US Navy minesweeper rammed into the South Atoll of Tubbataha destroying 2354.67 square meters of corals. Then, a Chinese fishing vessel, which was loaded with pangolin meat, slammed at the Park’s North Atoll harming corals almost double the area coverage of the previous one.
The occurrence of similar incidents apparently pose grave threat to the Tubbataha Reefs, which is a sanctuary to 72 percent of the world’s coral species and to various internationally threatened and endangered marine animals. Aside from facing danger from international shipping, the Park is also at continual risk from illegal fishers and shell collectors.
Thus, in order to intensify the protection of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and World
Heritage Site, a Buffer Zone Management Plan was developed by concerned agencies
and the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board in a workshop held early this year. The UNESCO World Heritage Center has supported the formulation of the said plan for the further protection of Tubbataha’s the unique values as a World Heritage Site.
Buffer zone, as stated in Republic Act 10067, otherwise known as Tubbataha Act of 2009, refers to the identified area outside the boundaries of and immediately adjacent to the Park that needs restriction on its use and development in order to avert harm to the protected area. Section 5 of the law created a ten (10)-nautical mile buffer zone around the core zone of TRNP.
Stipulated in the Buffer Zone Management Plan are the regulations on the identified uses of the more or less 356,000 hectares of waters that surrounds the 97,030-hectare no-take zone of Tubbataha Reefs. Among these regulations are highlighted below:
- Navigation by fishing vessels and other local watercraft. Fishing boats and other support vessels weighing 500 gross tons and below may be allowed safe passage within the buffer zone if these waters are part of their traditional routes to fishing grounds, or during inclement weather. Dive boats and other vessels with permits en route to Tubbataha shall be allowed safe passage within the buffer zone. However, all vessels are strictly prohibited from dumping waste or bilge water within the buffer.
- Commercial fishing, including the use of fish aggregating devices. Fish aggregating devices and other commercial fishing gear shall be removed and banned from the buffer zone. Commercial fishing boats shall be banned inside the buffer zone, and may operate only outside its perimeter.
- Energy exploration. The DOE shall exclude the buffer zone from service contracts awarded to energy companies engaged in the exploration of fossil fuel sources in the Sulu Sea.
Through international cooperation, it is also planned that international vessels will be advised to refrain from traversing through the buffer zone of the Park.