Tubbataha to seek PSSA designation from IMO

The Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board, with the help of various sectors, will seek the establishment of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park & World Heritage Site (TRNP) as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) to mitigate the threats posed by escalating shipping activities in the periphery of the park.

Critical location, imminent threats

Tubbataha_Sulu Sea nav map

Tracks of oil, chemical, passenger, and other vessels in the Sulu Sea. The red triangle represents the boundaries of Tubbataha.

Tubbataha lies at the junction of the two shipping routes that traverse the Sulu Sea: the north-south and the east-west routes. These navigational routes connect the West Philippine Sea to the Celebes Sea in the south and to the Pacific Ocean on the eastern border of the Philippines.  Shipping remains to be the most cost efficient way of transporting cargo around the world, thereby the world’s shipping fleet is expected to grow in the coming years.

Studies on shipping activities and oceanography in the Sulu Sea reveal that pollutants could cross Tubbataha at any month due to the proximity of ship tracks to the park.  Further, should chemical and oil spills take place, it will reach the Tubbataha Reefs within 4 hours to 8.5 days,  giving park authorities and the Philippine Coast Guard inadequate time to respond.

In 2013, two grounding incidents involving a US warship and a Chinese fishing vessel ruined more than 6,000 square meters of coral reefs in the park. These incidents have highlighted Tubbataha’s vulnerability to the potentially devastating impacts of the shipping activities. Aside from ships’ groundings, other threats include alien invasive species and oil and chemical spills, all with devastating effects of coral reefs.

Working towards PSSA designation

In order to protect the park from the impacts of international shipping, its establishment as a PSSA is being sought.  PSSAs are areas that need special protection because of their vulnerability to damage by international shipping activities. IMO is the body that designates PSSAs in areas recognized for ecological, socio-economic, or scientific significance.

In 2013, a consultation workshop was held among local stakeholders to identify initial concerns about, and possible obstacles to pursuing a PSSA designation. The Philippine Government took its first step in the application process with the submission of an information paper to the Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO in 2014.

On 1 October 2015, stakeholders will gather for the second time to review TRNP’s application dossier.  The dossier contains information and necessary documentation that will justify a grant of PSSA status before the IMO and the international commercial shipping community. The dossier will be submitted to the IMO’s MEPC early next year.

The Philippine Coast Guard, Department of Foreign Affairs, UNESCO, University of the Philippines – Institutes for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (UP-IMLOS), Department of Environment and Natural Resources, National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, and the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board, with assistance from the Marine Environment Protection Committee of the IMO, are working closely towards this designation.