Elpidio V. Peria
13 April 2013

Just when the Fillipino people thought Tubbataha’s reef’s nightmare would have been over, with the last vestiges of the USS Guardian having been salvaged last week by the US salvors, except only with the haggling over the piddling amount apparently grudgingly given by the US government, here comes another ship, this time a Chinese fishing vessel running aground over a much larger area of the Tubbataha Reef, news reports say something like 4,000 sq.m., as opposed to 1,000 sq.m. of reef destroyed by the US vessel and what may have been the defense of the Chinese this time, that they are fishing in their own territorial waters?

I just hope they will not attempt that kind of sophistry lest the Filipinos will snap in their long-held patience over Chinese bullying which reached its height in the West Philippine Sea brouhaha many months back.

So, what else is new? Chinese fishing vessels have always been caught inside the waters of the Philippines especially in the northern and western parts of Palawan. Government prosecutors there would always scratch their heads when all these poachers are always sprung out of captivity awaiting their trial in the slow-moving Philippine justice system, mind you, with the intervention always of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs or a high Palace official, (at least this was the time before Pnoy, but we don’t know what will happen now, so better for us to watch out who will make the first move) so these violators are always not scared, or they don’t learn their lesson. What they have seemed to learn from past experiences of capture was that, don’t worry about being caught, you can always get out, what with the help of Philippine authorities themselves.

This is a pity when the Chinese fishing vessel is apparently guilty not only of destroying the beautiful coral formations of the Tubbataha Reef, it also spilled several liters of oil, which will make restoration of the damaged portions difficult.

What are the challenges faced by the Tubbataha Management Office in ecological restoration?

The challenges are immense since the task of ecological restoration of the damaged reefs is not easy. Ecological restoration, according to the Society for Ecological Restoration (from the Convention on Biological Diversity Technical Series No. 62, 2011) is an intentional activity that initiates or facilitates the recovery of ecosystems by re-establishing a beneficial trajectory of maturation that persists over time; it is focused largely on reinstating autogenic ecological processes by which species populations can self-organize into functional and resilient communities that adapt to changing conditions while at the same time delivering vital ecosystem services. In addition to reinstating ecosystem function, ecological restoration also fosters the re-establishment of a healthy relationship between humans and their natural surroundings by reinforcing the inextricable link between nature and culture and emphasizing the important benefits that ecosystems provide to human communities.

According to Lamb, (2011) also cited in the same CBD Technical Paper, there are several approaches to address ecosystem degradation, one is to restore the degraded ecosystem to its historical state with regard to structure, function and composition – but it is not always possible to do this since some of the original species may have been lost, or exotic species cannot be removed, among other reasons; the other approach is to grow a commercially attractive species in a monoculture and take various steps to improve productivity (this may not be feasible in a diverse make-up of a marine ecosystem); another is to develop balanced strategies that return some measure of structure and function while generating the goods and services landholders (in this case, fisherfolk communities) need to ensure their economic well-being.

The experts usually recommend the third approach as a way of allowing socio-ecological systems to better adapt to climate change and build much needed resilience.

The Tubbataha Management Office would have their work cut out for them, but perhaps, as a least cost option, perhaps that fishing vessel may just be left there so that it will become a structure that coral polyps can hold on to in order for them to expand. Some parts of it, though, may have to be sunk and perhaps there should be a buffer zone around the perimeter of the reef some kilometers thick where any vessel, Filipino or otherwise, should not be allowed to breach.

But this would also require several units of fast craft under the supervision and control of the Tubbataha Management Office that can overtake any sizable fishing boat, the better to stop these poaching activities, just when haven’t yet started their illegal activities.

There is actually a Philippine National Police Maritime Service, which may be activated for the purpose. During my time as a staff in the Office of Sen. Orly Mercado, the feisty Senator would always then be aghast to find out about this, but he will become more appalled then to realize this unit, way back then, circa 1993-1997, would back then would not have any boat that it can command. Perhaps things are much better now, and they are now well-equipped, well-trained and well-funded, to deal with these challenges, like among others, guarding Tubbataha reef.

All these may have to be necessary in order to prevent Tubbataha become totaled, like a car in a freak accident, unrecoverable beyond repair.


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