The People Behind the Largest Marine Protected Area in the Philippines

The Philippines is known to have a unique and valuable biodiversity, but at the same time have a very high vulnerability. That is the very reason why my career’s work usually evolve around fundamental systematics. I used these knowledge in finding undiscovered species and teaching graduate students at the university for almost a decade now. Due to the specificity of my expertise, I have a little difficulty linking my work to the priorities of the country. But now I fully understood why the government put so much importance on resource management due to the urgency to preserve our priceless environment in the country. This was made possible because of my current exposure at the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), where I am working as a fellow under the supervision of the executive director for priority programs. My work is supported under ASEAN S&T Fellowship Program, wherein not only I could get to interact with our country’s top scientists and higher officials but as well as from other ASEAN member states.

The ministry recently have a project called “Strengthening the Marine Protected Areas to Conserve Marine Key Biodiversity Areas (MKBAs)” and this is where my work comes in. This project involves the establishment of a more coordinated approach to conservation efforts in five MKBAs in the country, and in partnership with five conservation organizations with extensive experience in coastal and marine conservations. Setting up a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) and improving the management effectiveness of local communities in these areas are the primary objectives. So I have been tasked to review existing resource management and conservation policies, including the sustainable financing system of specific MPAs in the country. And I have decided Tañon Strait in Central Visayas as my focus area, which is one of the five MKBAs, and actually the biggest MPA in the country covering 521,018 hectares. This work is in coordination with RARE-Philippines which has garnered full cooperation with the local community in the area through years of education campaigns; and provided me first-hand experience with the direct custodians of the area. RARE-Philippines has various innovative solutions to empower the coastal community to not just change the way they fish today, but to fish forever.

Tañon Strait is unique in the sense that it is under the jurisdiction of the national government, two regions, 3 provinces, 42 coastal cities and towns, and 298 villages; making management of the area very complicated. Most of time, there are usual conflicts between policy and boundary jurisdictions, even enforcement. It became a protected area in 1998 due to its rich fish diversity, and home to 14 species of dolphins and whales such as – spinner dolphins, dwarf sperm whales, pygmy killer whales and spotted dolphins. Only on February of 2015 wherein a general assembly was organized to discuss and finalize the Tañon Strait management plan, bringing together 350 members from the national and local government units and environmental advocates. OCEANA-Philippines was one of the organizing committee of the assembly, alongside DENR and RARE-Philippines, and one of the leading organization dealing with national policies on marine environmental conservation. Notably, one of OCEANA-Philippines’ achievements in protecting the area is their recent lawsuit win against the unconstitutional agreement between the government and a big petroleum exploration company; which could potentially cause environmental degradation in the area.

Also only during this year, after 17 years being declared as a protected area, the office of the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape (TSPS) was established with a protected area superintendent and 11 staff from the DENR regional office. It is just a one-story building in the municipality of Badian, located at the center of Tañon Strait. It took a while to convene officials and resolve conflicting issues, especially on the enforcement of illegal fishing and habitat degrading activities in the area. However, proper management of the area was finally put in place last year, mainly due to the collaborative efforts of the entire community and the commitment of the governing officials. This office is the representation of the long awaited leadership for this area with critical environment needs (see attached picture).

Lastly, not only was I given a chance to learn from the top organizations in finding solutions to pressing environmental issues in the country, but also a chance to collaborate with colleagues within Southeast Asia and have a wider perspective. Together with six other fellows from other country, we are working together to further strengthen regional network on biodiversity conservation through the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). The management team of ACB was kind enough to provide us with necessary information, guiding advice, and opportunities to participate in their activities.

Having said all that, sustainable management of our natural resources while preserving our environment in the ASEAN region, like the Tañon Strait, can only be achieved through strengthening cooperation among policy makers and the scientific community.

 

Never short of community support, the TSPS office is a small but functional instrument to a sound management of the 131 MPAs within the area.

 

 

Author: Paul John Legaspi Geraldino, PhD

Presently an associate professor at the Department of Biology of the University of San Carlos in the Philippines. He focuses on the study of molecular biology, and currently the curator of the university herbarium and the head of the university cell and molecular biology laboratory. His current research includes identifying hidden bio-resources and determining their ecological functions and potential medicinal applications.