Home to amazing creatures of the sea

(Note: The following article was first published in the Business Mirror on April 30, 2016.)

Have you ever seen a dolphin or a whale while cruising?

If you have by chance, consider yourself lucky.

These marine mammals are rarely seen nowadays, as their global population has decreased dramatically, mainly because of habitat destruction, pollution, hunting and bycatch, or accidental catching.

While whales are traditionally hunted for food and medicine, dolphins and sea cow, another threatened marine mammal called dugong in the Philippines, often fall victims of by-catch, as they are trapped in nets.

As such, watching whales, dolphins or, in very rare cases, sea cows kept in huge aquarium tanks or in their known habitats has become a popular tourist attraction.

In the Philippines, while cruising the Tañon Strait, a protected seascape between Cebu and Negros, sighting of these amazing creatures is not a rare treat.

The strait is about 161 kilometers long. It connects the Visayan Sea in the north to the Bohol Sea in the south. Its width is from 5 km to 27 km.

It is a well-known feeding ground, playground and breeding ground of many marine wildlife, including the once believed to be extinct sea cows, making it a key biodiversity area and priority conservation site in the Philippines.


Threatened habitat, protected seascape

The adverse impact of the unbridled development in many of the coastal towns from Cebu and Negros facing the Tañon Strait, however, is now strongly being felt and is sending a chilling effect to stakeholders and its sworn protectors.

Considered one of the county’s 10 major fishing grounds, the Tañon Strait is also facing challenges caused by water pollution and illegal fishing by commercial fishing vessels. It is supposed to be a municipal fishing ground reserved for small fishermen. Nevertheless, various stakeholders of the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape (TSPS) are upbeat about recent developments at the strait, once put under siege by a potentially and environmentally damaging development project, in the hunt for oil through drilling underneath the ocean floor.

A protected area by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 1234, signed by then-President Fidel V. Ramos on May 27, 1998, under the category of protected seascape, the TSPS is placed under the administrative jurisdiction of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), through Republic Act 7586, or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act of 1992.

It is the largest protected area classified as a protected seascape in the country. It covers an area of 521,000 hectares and is shared by 42 towns and cities in the provinces of Cebu and Negros.

Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the DENR Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said protecting and conserving the Tañon Strait means saving a very important habitat and a wide variety of marine wildlife in the area, including the rare dolphins, sea cows and whales that thrive in the area.

“It is a migratory route of marine mammals, like dolphins and whales. Dolphins and whales are indicators of the health of the marine ecosystem. Where food is abundant, you can see whales and dolphins,” Lim said, adding that said fish species also play very important roles in maintaining a balanced marine ecology, such as fertilizing the seabed, which is essential for plant growth, sea grasses and other microorganisms to feed-on others on top of the food chain.

Around 14 of the 27 known species of dolphins can be found in the Tañon Strait. This, by itself, is a reason it should be protected from destructive human activities, Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo-Ramos said. This alone should be enough reason to fight for the Tañon Strait, she added.

Oceana Philippines, an ocean-conservation advocacy group, is among the civil-society organizations (CSOs) advocating the protection and sustainable management of the Tañon Strait.

Besides dolphins and whales, there are also sightings of sea cows in the area, DENR Central Visayas Director Isabelo Montejo said.

In 2015, the Supreme Court (SC), acting on a petition filed by CSOs, declared as unconstitutional a contract signed between the government and an oil-exploration firm allowing the exploration, development and exploitation of petroleum resources within the Tañon Strait.

Besides failing to comply with the safeguards under Section 2, Article XII of the Constitution, which requires that the service contract should be authorized by a law, existing laws, such as the NIPAS Act of 1992, were also violated. Considered a landmark ruling, the case was won by Estenzo-Ramos and Rose Liza Eisma-Osorio Central Visayan Fisherfolk Development Center and Resident Marine Mammals of Protected Seascape against the Department of Energy and Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. Ltd.

Ramos said: “Even before, we were already fighting to save Tañon Strait. There was an offshore drilling and we filed a case to stop the drilling in the strait. And last year, the SC invalidated the offshore-drilling contract. That is one big victory.”

“Last year, as well, we were able to push for the convening of the PAMBs [Protected Area Management Boards]. This was the first time that the PAMB convened in 17 years. There should be a twice-a-year meeting. Tañon Strait is one of the Visayas’s most treasured protected areas, and the SC decision is one big victory for the various stakeholders who fought to defend the Tañon Strait,” she said.

Ramos said an ecologically-destructive activity, such as oil drilling, is an oddity, especially in an environmentally-critical area like TSPS, and must be stopped along with other development projects that may endanger or threaten marine wildlife that continue to thrive in the strait.


Protecting Tañon Strait

In March last year, the PAMB of the TSPS held its first general assembly more than 17 years after its declaration as a protected area.

The meeting paved the way for various stakeholders to come up with the General Management Plan (GMP) for the TSPS. The GMP is still waiting for final approval by Environment Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje.

The 10-year GMP includes the rehabilitation of corals and mangroves within the Tañon Strait.
Under the plan, the protected area was divided into three areas, namely, the multiple-use zones, strict protection zones and buffer zones, as mandated by the Nipas Act. The GMP was among the output of the PAMB’s series of consultation meetings with various stakeholders last year.

Early in February this year, the PAMB held its second general assembly. A parallel meeting was also conducted by CSOs, closing ranks to support efforts to protect the TSPS from all forms of threat.

Last year, as a result of the collaborative effort of the government and CSOs, a joint sea-borne operation apprehended four commercial fishing vessels engaged in illegal fishing in Tañon Strait, from September 15, 2015, to October 31, 2015. The 45-day joint seaborne operation was successfully conducted by the DENR Central Visayas, together with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Central Visayas, in collaboration with the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the local government units (LGUs) of Bindoy, Badian and Guihulngan City in Negros Oriental. PNP Maritime Group Director Police Chief Supt. Efren Perez had also expressed support behind the initiative, vowing to exhaust all efforts to minimize and preempt illegal commercial fishing and unsustainable fishing practices in the Tañon Strait, and other fishing grounds in Central Visayas.


More protection needed

Ramos lamented that there should be stronger collaboration between concerned government agencies to help save the Tañon Stait.

“I really feel the government is slow. LGUs are supposed to protect Tañon Strait. There are laws [that are supposed to] protect it—the Fisheries Code, Wildlife Conservation Act and the Nipas. Why are they not enforcing these laws?” she said.

Ramos said most LGUs do not even have an updated Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) or Integrated Coastal Resource Management Plan (ICRMP), which are supposed to address the problem of unbridled development that threatens one of the country’s major fishing grounds. “I would really prefer a moratorium, until [there is] a baseline data for Tañon Strait,” Ramos said.

The moratorium, she said, should cover all potentially destructive projects, such as coal-fired power plants, construction of oil and gas depot; cement plants; and all other ecologically unsustainable projects.

Ramos said there is also a need to strengthen the prosecution of violators of environment laws, as well as LGUs and other agencies that fail to implement the laws in the same breadth, as the Ombudsman is now going after LGUs for their failure to enforce the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.


Ray of hope

Montejo said that, with the support of various stakeholders, including the BFAR, LGUs, law-enforcement agencies and CSOs, a ray of hope is shining upon the Tañon Strait.

“Right now, there are not much physical activities in Tañon Strait. Last year, we really needed to an inventory of the mangrove, conduct a survey of existing corals and other features within the Tanon Strait. We were able to piece together the Tañon Strait,” Montejo said.

He said the physical development or activities and actual implementation, such as mangrove rehabilitation, in partnership with LGUs and other people’s organizations, will begin this year. Montejo said a 360-meter board walk was completed in Barangay Maliao in Badian, Cebu, where the TSPS office is situated.

“We already identified the strict protection, multiple use and the buffer zones. This is in accordance to the implementing rules and regulation of the Nipas Act of 1992,” he said.

He said it is important to spell out development and protection at the strait. Areas where there are developments prior to the proclamation of Tañon Strait [as TSPS] are included in the multiple-use zone, including ecotourism, such as dolphin- and whale-watching activities.

Montejo said the DENR Central Visayas is in consultation with LGUs to convince the LGUs which has shared jurisdiction over the TSPS to harmonize their CLUP and ICRMP with the GMP for the TSPS developed last year.

Also last year, he said the DENR, together with various stakeholders, has started to crack down against illegal fishing.

“Last year we have apprehended four fishing boats, and cases were filed against them [fishermen]. Tañon Strait is reserved for municipal fishermen,” he said.


Participatory governance

With 42 towns involved in the management of the TSPS, Lim said the PAMBs are expected to face the gargantuan task of holding a general assembly if explaining why it was only last year that the first general assembly of the PAMB for the TSPS came about she said. What is important, Montejo said, is that PAMB is now closely working together with various stakeholders, which is the essence of the protected-area management system as, espoused by the Nipas Act.
He said the executive committee of the PAMBs of the TSPS has started to collectively act to protect Tañon Strait. This, he said, is a very positive development, considering the difficulty of convening a huge number of PAMBs members, representing national government agencies, LGUs and other stakeholders.

He said the potential of the Tañon Strait is huge as a major fishing ground, benefiting tens of thousands of small fishermen, as well as boosting income as agents of ecotourism. Since it became a protected area, he said the DENR Central Visayas has accumulated a total of P57 million from fees collected from various users of the Tañon Strait. He said many businesses or users of the protected area do not pay fees.

According to Montejo, given the GMP for the TSPS, there is a possibility of generating at least P10 million a year from users within the multi-purpose-use zones alone. “We are now collecting debt payments, and we should be able to use it [them] for the rehabilitation of our corals and mangrove areas, which we have identified last year,” he said.

Lim said protecting the Tañon Strait, and with PAMB and other stakeholders coming together to protect it, reflects the government’s resolve to protect the country’s rich biodiversity, as well as fulfill its international commitment under the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or the Bonn Convention, an environmental treaty under the aegis of the United Nations Environmental Program.

The treaty, Lim said, provides a global platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats.

Like other protected areas declared as key biodiversity areas and priority conservation areas, protecting the Tañon Strait, home to amazing creatures of the sea, is best considered our shared responsibility, Lim said. (Jonathan L. Mayuga/Business Mirror)

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