Cagayan Ridge
sweetlips in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
Jürgen Freund

Cagayan Ridge covers the Cagayancillo group of islands in the north and San Miguel group of islands in the south. It is home to the 97,000-hectare Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Ridge boasts at least 600 fish species, 379 coral species, 79 algae species, 13 shark species, 14 cetacean species and over 100 bird species. The TRNP’s north and south islets are known sea turtle nesting sites and important seabird habitats. The Cagayan Ridge Corridor is also an important source and sink for fish egg and larvae in the Sulu Sea.

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), one of the most biologically diverse coral reef systems in the Philippines is a vital part of the Cagayan Ridge. The TRNP has been declared the only purely marine World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia by UNESCO, and in 1999, it was also declared a RAMSAR (The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands) site to demonstrate its global importance to the conservation of congregating seabird species. 

Like oases in the desert seas, the small islands, reef atolls and shoals of Cagayan Ridge form a vibrant chain of critical life support systems necessary to maintain the marine biodiversity and fisheries throughout the Sulu Sea and beyond.

Illegal fishing and poaching from both local and foreign commercial fishers are major threats to the biodiversity of Cagayan Ridge, particularly Tubbataha Reefs. For many years, the remoteness of this rich biological wonder protected it against such activities. However, fishermen from outlying islands and nearby Asian countries have found their way to Tubbataha. Due to limited personnel and meager resources in managing this area, it is difficult to protect habitats (such as coral reefs) and species (such as seabirds, marine turtles and marine mammals) against intruders. Current government funding, tourist fees, and fines collected from environmental crimes such as damage to corals and wildlife from boat grounding and the dropping of anchors are not enough to cover park management needs.

Cagayancillo also experiences illegal fishing in its municipal waters, as fishers from nearby provinces encroach in Cagayancillo’s waters to take advantage of its rich marine resources. The municipality’s remote location makes it difficult to successfully prosecute violators, with the Palawan trial court being at least 15 hours’ journey away across the Sulu Sea.