Protection of Important Marine Biodiversity Areas Gains Support from Key Leaders

Tagaytay City, Philippines - The number and extent of marine protected areas (MPA) in the country’s most important marine biodiversity conservation sites have been steadily growing in the past few years. This reflects an increasing recognition by coastal communities, local governments, and other concerned sectors of the need for effective marine conservation and enforcement, a gathering of stakeholders and experts here affirmed.

“In the face of threats stemming from climate change, overfishing, and marine habitat destruction, stakeholders from all over the country are responding to this challenge by adopting MPAs as among the tools that will ensure long-term viability of our rich marine resources,” said Romeo Trono, Country Executive Director of Conservation International-Philippines.

Conservation International (CI) works in the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape, a 100 million-hectare area in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas that spans Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The Seascape is part of the Coral Triangle, the center of the world’s marine and fish biodiversity.

Marine Protected Areas

Since 2005, CI and its partners in the local, national and regional arenas have been supporting the establishment of MPA and MPA networks in priority marine biodiversity corridors in the Seascape: Verde Island Passage Corridor between the waters of Batangas and Mindoro island, Cagayan Ridge in Sulu Sea, and the Trinational Sea Turtle Corridor comprising of waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The MPAs in these corridors are set aside for conservation purposes and are protected from fishing activities in order to conserve critical habitats and allow fish stocks to thrive. MPAs have been shown to have great potential in contributing to food security as well as climate change adaptation.

CI said that ensuring the effectiveness of these MPAs requires effective enforcement of relevant marine and fisheries laws. In the Verde Island Passage, the joint MPA and Bantay Dagat (Sea Watch) networks have been established to improve enforcement Passage-wide. The Philippine National Police-Maritime Group (PNP-MG), Provincial PNP, the Bantay Dagat Network, and the Province of Batangas have entered into a Memorandum of Agreement that provides for coordination mechanisms to ensure effective enforcement. Similar partnerships have also been pursued in other corridors, through partnerships with agencies such as the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy.

Verde Passage’s growing network of MPAs currently comprises more than 16,000 hectares, including at least three thousand hectares of “no take” zones, or areas where fishing activities are completely prohibited. These include a 1,050-hectare no take zone in Lubang Island, Occidental Mindoro, which is the biggest no take area in the Passage. It is also hailed as the first “climate-SMART” MPA, designed with climate change impacts and resiliency considerations in mind.

Nature-based tourism for conservation

In many areas of the Seascape, the promotion of nature-based tourism is also being pursued as part of conservation efforts.“Tourism revenues already help support popular areas of the Seascape, such as the world-class diving sites in Verde Passage and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Palawan,” noted Trono. “We are hoping that tourism will also take off in the Sea Turtle Corridor, which hosts the largest aggregation of nesting green turtles in Southeast Asia.”

CI assisted in developing an ecotourism framework, which has been used as basis in drawing up ecotourism guidelines for the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary (TIWS) in Tawi-Tawi. The guidelines were received positively by the Joint Management Committee for the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area, a joint protected area managed by the Philippines and Malaysia. The Committee will look into the institutional mechanisms for transboundary ecotourism joint venture and partnership, while the TIWS Protected Area Management Board will issue policies in support of ecotourism development.

Long-term Outlook

Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos-Recto welcomed partnerships with groups such as CI, and reaffirmed the province’s commitment to its marine conservation efforts. “We are committed to sustain partnerships like this, which have yielded considerable gains for our marine environment and our people. We will exert more efforts and provide more resources to protect our Verde Island Passage.”

For his part, Oriental Mindoro Gov. Alfonso Umali, president of the Governors’ League of the Philippines, is optimistic on the long-term benefits of current initiatives. “The Sulu Sulawesi Seascape, a core of world’s marine biodiversity, will become a vibrant source of investment on tourism, fisheries and skilled human resources trained and educated on community management of marine resources,” he said.

“Protecting our natural resources means preserving the long-term viability of the life-support systems on which people depend,” said Trono. “This connection of conservation and human well-being is something that should always be recognized, and we are pleased to see that this key principle is being upheld and reflected in the current efforts in the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape.”