Balabac Strait
Jürgen Freund
 
The Balabac Strait Marine Biodiversity Conservation Corridor is located in the southwestern part of the province of Palawan. It is bounded on the north by Buliluyan Island and Balabac North Channel, on the south by Balabac Strait and Borneo, on the east by Sulu Sea, and on the west by the South China Sea.

The Balabac group of islands is composed of 31 islands and islets, with 20 villages and a growing coastal population. It has a total land area of about 58,166 hectares, with some 489,875 hectares of municipal waters that are protected under local legislation.

The Balabac Strait Marine Biodiversity Conservation Corridor serves as a major migratory passageway for tuna, sea turtles, and marine mammals. It is a known haven for 27 true and 34 associated mangrove species found in Balabac. Yet, this is a place where biodiversity faces destruction and exploitation on a daily basis, thus making it a priority marine conservation area.

Marine flora and fauna of global significance and a large diversity of habitats can be found in Balabac Strait. It is home to the Balabac mousedeer (Tragulus napunigricans), estuarine crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), some 10 species of endemic birds, 30 coral genera, and 440 reef fish species. 

Fish and invertebrate larvae, as well as migratory species like tuna, sea turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins move within Balabac Strait’s waters. The area is also one of the important habitats of green and hawksbill turtles in the Philippines, as well as in the Indian Ocean and South East Asia region.

Ten species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) have been recorded to occur within the Balabac corridor, including the subspecies of the spinner dolphin, the dwarf spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris roseiventris), a new record for the country. The sighting of Bryde’s whales also indicates that Balabac strait is an important corridor for this species.

 
threats

During the past decades, the Balabac Strait corridor experienced the wanton destruction of its coral reefs, mangroves and other forest and marine resources. 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. Illegal fishing and poaching pose grave threats to this valuable marine environment. Limited enforcement capability of local government units and the lack of conservation awareness among the local coastal communities make Balabac Strait an area of very high marine conservation priority.

Live captures of sea turtles are confirmed to occur in the Balabac islands, including those done by Chinese poachers.  According to information from the Philippine Commission on Illegal Entrants (PCIE), a total of 884 foreign intrusions were documented in Palawan from 1995-2006, 66% of which were Chinese nationals, while the rest were Malaysians, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Taiwanese. A lot of poaching incidents occur in Balabac Strait, since the area is a passageway that acts as entry point to Sulu Sea from South China Sea.

 
strengthening enforcement

CI is collaborating with law enforcement agencies and helping to devise ways to strengthen law enforcement efforts in Balabac Strait. In June 2010, Executive Order 899 was signed, which formally approved an Action Plan for environmental law enforcement in the turtle trade hotspot areas of Balabac, Palawan and Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi. EO 899 also designated the Philippine Coast Guard as the lead agency and coordinator among members of an ad hoc committee composed of government agencies involved in marine environmental law protection.  The Action Plan was the result of the collaborative efforts of these government agencies, with CI as the NGO partner helping to facilitate the process. 

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.

Implementation of the Action Plan allowed the deployment of enforcement personnel and monitoring vessels to the Balabac Strait, subsequently leading to arrests of violators, most notably turtle poachers.