EXPERT OPINION: Marivel Dygico, Project Manager for Tubbataha
What is your role in WWF-Philippines and in the protection of Tubbataha?Talk about marine biodiversity in the Coral Triangle and WWF-Philippines will match that with role-diversity in the organization. Officially, I am the Project Manager for Tubbataha conservation tasked to implement WWF activities in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and World Heritage Site. We do things in the field of research, enforcement, Information Education and Communication (IEC), community development in Cagayancillo- the municipality with political jurisdiction over the Park, capability building, and a bit of fund sourcing in coordination with the marketing unit. These are done in conjunction with the programs of the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) which is headed by the Park Superintendent, Ms. Angelique Songco. I am also the permanent alternate of Mr. Lory Tan as member of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) and its Executive Committee.
Taken together these constitute about half of my time and attention. The other half goes to the management of Navorca, the only floating asset of WWF-Philippines. I make sure that she remains an asset, and not otherwise. Navorca operates in the Sulu Sea as a research vessel and a live-a-board for educational expeditions, training, and interestingly for fund raising as well. She is manned by a team of 6 reliable crew led by the skipper, Mr. Ronald de Roa.
What makes Tubbataha so special and valuable? How important is Tubbataha in providing food and income to Filipinos?As a World Heritage Site, Tubbataha falls under three criteria of outstanding universal value. It is an area of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance as seen in the pristine reefs that shelter a rich diversity of marine life. Dramatic drop offs and perpendicular walls reaching 100-meter depth, clear waters reflecting phenomenal colors, and the growing number of marine mega-fauna like tiger sharks, cetaceans, turtles and dense schools of pelagic fishes make it a world-class dive site. It contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those species which are threatened such as the Napoleon Wrasse, the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle.
The islets of Tubbataha serve as home and breeding area for seven species of seabirds. The critically endangered Christmas Island frigate regularly visits the park. It lies near the apex of the Coral Triangle which harbors the highest diversity of coral species in the world- 80 out of the 111 coral genera found in the world are represented in the reefs of Tubbataha. It is an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes that are well-preserved because of its remote location in the middle of the Sulu Sea.
As one of the Philippine’s oldest ecosystems it plays a key role in the process of reproduction, dispersal and colonization by fish, coral and invertebrate species. It provides a good laboratory for the study of coral reef formation, recruitment, and responses of a protected reef to the impacts of climate change.
Studies showed that Tubbataha is both a source and sink for coral and fish larvae, supporting robust fisheries in the Sulu Sea. In the eastern coast of mainland Palawan alone, there are about 200,000 fisher folks benefitting from the surrounding fishing ground.
Dive tourism in Tubbataha was computed to generate P30M for the country, annually (which is practically 3 months only considering the dive season in Tubbataha). Only 5-10 % of this goes to Tubbataha by way of conservation fees, and 95% goes to hotels, restaurants, and transport operators.
In Cagayancillo, local communities inspired by Tubbataha established their own marine reserves beginning in 2002. Five years after, corals bounced back to life, attracting divers from neighboring towns. Fish catch increased and seafood became more available for local consumption.
In the many years you have been involved in protecting Tubbataha, what have been the major challenges and setbacks you and your team have experienced?The first major challenge we encountered was to set up a truly operational and permanent management body to supervise the day-to-day activities of the park. WWF was then managing the park under a time-bound project with time-bound personnel. When the TMO was eventually established in 2003, the next major challenge was to have a law enacted by the Philippine Congress to provide more authority and clout to the TPAMB and the TMO in effectively protecting the park.
After eight long years, the TRNP Law was passed in 2010. Since then, we were faced with the challenge to secure the long-term financial requirement for the TPAMB and the TMO to enforce the TRNP Law. We create our own problems, don’t we?
There were setbacks mainly because we work within a government structure tainted with political patronage, complacency, and lack of drive to innovate.
What are the significant achievements of your team’s hard work throughout the years? What has been the key factor to such successes?Tubbataha is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a marine protected area. We celebrate with all those who gave Tubbataha prominent recognition, locally and internationally. The World Future Council bestowed the Silver Future Policy Award 2012 to the TRNP Law.
The CNNGo ranked Tubbataha as the 8th best dive site in the world. Filipino marine scientists hailed Tubbataha as a marine conservation model and the center of marine biodiversity in the country. We celebrate the exemplary performance of the TMO personnel and the marine park rangers. In retrospect, the significant achievements of WWF in its fifteen years of work with the park management were not only the technical and physical accomplishments. Our fluid presence and involvement in situations not expected, and in circumstances that were not at all convenient were valuable contributions as well. Our capability for quick response and positive outlook even during difficult times were the key to success.
How important is sustainable financing in ensuring Tubbataha’s long-term management? What are your current efforts towards attaining this?Sustainable financing will secure the tenure of the TMO personnel. It will allow for a more pro-active planning and will enhance collaborative partnerships at a programmatic scale. To help secure long-term financing for Tubbataha, WWF launched a capital fund campaign, mainly for the funding of the new ranger station which is now in the pipeline and the establishment of an endowment fund.
What is your most memorable experience working in Tubbataha?The scenario- a Filipino outrigger boat loaded with young marine researchers in hot pursuit of a Chinese fishing vessel in the Sulu Sea. It started as a research trip on board our first research boat, Minerva, to monitor the reefs of Tubbataha and Cagayancillo.
Just before dawn on our second day, the fishermen of Cawili, one of the islands in Cagayancillo, reported through a single side band radio a foreign fishing vessel prowling their reefs. They have rounded-up the small boats called sampan and the poachers on board, but the mother boat was too big for them to handle. We aborted our research dives and responded to the call. Knowing that these poachers used cyanide to catch and trade live reef food fish, we said, ‘There is no point studying the reefs if these poachers will destroy them now’.
Boat Captain de Roa quickly deployed two speed boats carrying our two armed Navy escorts while Minerva trail behind. The binoculars were passing hands, every one eager to have a good view of what was happening. The Mayor and his bodyguards were huddled at the bow sizing up the fishing vessel steaming before us, in case they get her custody. I was praying silently.
After half an hour, the two poachers piloting the fishing vessel were subdued. This marked the first poaching case in the Philippines filed by a Municipal Mayor. The vessel was confiscated and all 20 poachers were put behind bars. In the end, I say we were only partially successful because the poachers skirted the full force of our law for diplomatic considerations.