Stronger enforcement pushed for Palawan, Tawi-Tawi waters

The arrest of nine Chinese nationals for poaching marine turtles in Philippine waters in Balabac, Palawan, last week represents a victory in enforcing fishery laws and protecting the country’s marine resources, according to environmental group Conservation International. However, the group pointed out that the incident also underscores the need for stronger efforts and greater cooperation among Philippine enforcement agencies as well as their counterparts in the Malaysian side of the border.The arrest was done after a half-hour pursuit on the high seas by crew members of MCS 3002, a Philippine Coast Guard-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources patrol vessel. According to Coast Guard personnel, the Chinese crew were observed throwing items off the vessel during the pursuit in what was suspected to be an attempt to get rid of evidence. Nevertheless, two stuffed turtles and other embalming paraphernalia were recovered from the vessel, indicating that the fishermen were capturing and stuffing the turtles onboard.

“We commend the efforts of the Coast Guard-BFAR team that apprehended the poachers, but this incident only shows that the illegal capture of sea turtles by encroachers continues to be a serious threat to our marine resources,” said Romeo Trono, Country Executive Director of Conservation International-Philippines.

The Balabac Strait is a priority biodiversity conservation corridor that links the Sulu Sea with the South China Sea and serves as a major migratory passageway and habitat for fishes, sea turtles, marine mammals, nutrients, as well as large ocean-going vessels. The richness of the area makes it a prime target for foreign fishing vessels involved in illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, which includes massive direct takes of endangered sea turtles. Balabac is an important habitat for two sea turtle species – the green and hawksbill turtles.

According to Trono, the BFAR vessel MCS 3002 was deployed to Balabac Strait in accordance to a Philippine Action Plan jointly developed last year by law enforcement agencies and non-government organizations. These agencies include the Philippine National Police-Maritime Group, Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, Maritime Industry Authority, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Justice, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, and Conservation International.

The Action Plan focused on addressing IUU fishing, poaching and illegal wildlife trade in the Balabac Strait as well as the Turtle Islands Wildlife Marine Sanctuary in Tawi-Tawi, which support the greatest number of nesting green sea turtles in Southeast Asia.

“The number of agencies involved, in itself, indicates the need for a mechanism to facilitate greater cooperation to ensure that conservation impacts are achieved,” said Trono. “We’re pleased that the Action Plan is slowly being implemented and is yielding results such as this arrest, but we are also calling on the government for more high-level efforts to address this issue.”

Aside from the deployment of a patrol vessel to Balabac Strait, the Action Plan also called for the issuance of an Executive Order to enable the formal adoption of the Action Plan at the highest level of government. The EO will also provide for the establishment of an agency or task force so there will be designated lead agency and clear delineation of duties.

The Action Plan also includes tasks for strengthening prosecution, including uniformity of policies in the Department of Justice for appreciating Global Positioning System Readings, disposition, custody and maintenance guidelines for wildlife, beneficial custody of vessels, availability of interpreters and the assignment of special prosecutors to areas like the remote Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, to allow for speedy prosecution of cases.

“The rich biodiversity of Balabac Strait is already subjected to a multitude of internal threats like coral reef destruction, cyanide fishing, mangrove debarking and cutting, and wildlife trade,” said Trono. “Allowing the perpetuation of poaching operations, which capture marine species like turtles at massive commercial scales, will further decimate the marine resources upon which millions of people depend.”