Batangas inks executive order for protecting Verde Island Passage

Gov. Vilma Santos-Recto signed an executive order last week strengthening fishery and environmental law enforcement and forming a quick response team to facilitate more efficient law enforcement in the coastal, marine and inland waters of the province.

The order created the Batangas Environment Response Team (BERT), which will be composed of law enforcement agencies such as the Coast Guard and Philippine National Police (PNP), provincial officials, and 13 local government units (LGUs) representing the province’s coastal municipalities. The team is divided into four clusters assigned according to bay area: the Batangas Bay, Balayan Bay, Talim Bay, and Tayabas Bay.

Batangas is part of the Verde Island Passage, an area with rich fishing grounds and ecotourism attractions and which is recognized as the world’s “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity.” Illegal fishing, however, continue to be a problem in many of the municipalities. The formation of the provincial Bantay Dagat network as well as MPA networks facilitated cooperation and information exchange that improved efforts to apprehend and deter illegal fishers.

“Being guardians of the rich marine biodiversity of the Verde Island Passage is something that we are very proud of and that we take very seriously,” said Gov. Santos-Recto. “This is just one of the efforts that we have undertaken and will continue to undertake to sustain these rich biological resources and ensure that the people continue to benefit from it.”

Executive Order 2011-02 officially adopted a marine law enforcement strategy that calls for increased efforts on the areas of policy advocacy, marine protected area (MPA) management, partnership development, personnel (Bantay Dagat) development, compliance and control, and monitoring. The order also ensured that at least PhP1 million will be allocated to the operations of the enforcement team each year, to be allocated from the Provincial Government Fund. To enable the enforcement team to effectively do its work, the Provincial Government has also committed to the purchase of equipment for use by the enforcement team.

Prior to the Executive Order, the Batangas Bantay Dagat (Sea Watch) network, composed of volunteer fish wardens, worked with local officials and local police in enforcing marine and fishery laws. There are currently around 300 deputized Bantay Dagat members in Batangas province, and around 900 in the entire Verde Island Passage.

“We salute the provincial government of Batangas for going beyond lip service and really putting their money in protecting their rich biodiversity,” said Romeo Trono of Conservation International, one of the groups assisting in conservation work in the province. “Their initiatives in marine conservation serve as a good model for other local governments around the country,” he said.

Trono added that local fishers in areas with MPAs such as Nasugbu and San Juan municipalities are already observing increased fish catch and increased diversity of reef fishes. “Other MPAs such as those featuring great dive sites like in Mabini, or mangrove and birdwatching areas like in Calatagan, are also generating revenues and employment for local communities. While it may be challenging work, these experiences show that it pays to invest in conservation,” Trono added.

Aside from efforts in Batangas, similar activities such as MPA networking and Bantay Dagat strengthening are also being undertaken in Mindoro at the other side of the Verde Island Passage.