After the scarring, healing comes to Tubbataha
I never thought I’d sail to the middle of the Sulu Sea just to fly a kite. Soaring above our boat, it bucked and bobbed and played tag with the wind.
Secured 15 meters beneath the red kite’s head was a GoPro camera shooting aerials of North Atoll. Its images will soon help scientists understand the health of our seas.
Of course, we didn’t sail to Tubbataha just to fly kites. Together with the scientists and engineers of the Automated Rapid Reef Assessment System (Arras) team and Tubbataha Management Office, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has returned to check how last year’s ship grounding scars are healing.
On Jan. 17, 2013, the USS Guardian, a 68-meter-long US Navy warship, entered Tubbataha to accidentally plough into its South Atoll, home to the last 8,000 or so Philippine Black Noddies, which are critically endangered seabirds. It took 73 excruciating days and $45 million to slice and remove the 1,300-ton Avenger-class minesweeper from the reef. When the silt settled, Tubbataha South Atoll was 2,345 square meters of reef poorer.
Just eight days after the minesweeper was extracted, another vessel followed suit. On April 8, 2013, Tubbataha park rangers discovered the FV Min Long Yu, a 48-meter-long Chinese poachers’ vessel, floundering a 1.8 km east of the Ranger Station, part of Tubbataha’s North Atoll. By the time the craft was towed out 11 days later, another 3,902 square meters of reef had been obliterated. Worse, 2,870 endangered pangolins were found aboard—all dead.
United States Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said last July 23 that the US government was ready to pay for the USS Guardian’s damage—about $1.5 million. China has remained mum about its grounding incident.
Eye in the sky
Arras employs three reef monitoring systems. The first uses a sports kite to provide bird’s-eye view images of sites. The second is called the teardrop, from the shape of the plexiglass housing for its camera. The last is the camera array—a 4-meter aluminum rig featuring a GPS and five downturned GoPros, taking continuous video of the seafloor.
“We’re using Arras to monitor not just the scar sites, but the overall health of coral reefs,” notes Arras head Dr. Maricor Soriano. “Our goal is to create a national atlas of coral reefs by surveying 10,000 of the 27,000 square kilometers of Philippine reefs. Since 2010, we’ve covered about 400 square kilometers.”
At the heart of the Sulu Sea, 160 km southeast of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, are the twin atolls of Tubbataha—magnificent worlds brimming with wealth both beneath and beyond the blue. Born of undersea volcanic eruptions more than 15 million years ago, the islets within the 97,030-hectare Natural Marine Park have become the most productive marine systems in the Philippines.
More than 600 types of fish—ranging from the fingernail-sized pygmy seahorse to the occasional tiger shark—patrol coral-coated slopes and dramatic drop-offs adorned by gorgonians.
Moorish idols, forever resplendent in gold trim, strut like beauty queens. Colorful sweetlips cruise about with schoolboy curiosity. Ghostly silver batfish swim like wraiths, while trailing teams of barracuda exude pure menace.
Anything with fins
Anything that has fins would probably hang out in Tubbataha.
All this biodiversity translates to food productivity. Whereas a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef annually yields up to 65 metric tons of fish yearly, Tubbataha generates over 200. Fishing within the park is not allowed but the larval dispersal effects continually seed the far reaches of the Sulu Sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.
Life for the denizens of Tubbataha flowed and ebbed as it had for generations—until last year.
Excitedly, we reel in the kite and recover the camera, knowing that each picture of the twin grounding scars is worth a thousand words.
(The author is the communications and media manager of World Wide Fund-Philippines.)
In the know: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
The Tubbataha Reefs are atoll coral reefs located 157 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.
It is a marine sanctuary protected as the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, covering almost 97,030 hectares of high-quality marine habitats supporting more than 350 species of corals and almost 500 species of fish.
The site is a haven to whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and Napoleon wrasse. It also protects one of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region.
In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) declared the park a World Heritage site. It is administered as part of Cagayancillo, Palawan, and is under the protective management of the Department of National Defense.
In 1999, in response to overfishing, poaching and exploitation, the Palawan Council formed the 19-person Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board for Sustainable Development to conserve, manage and preserve the resources of Tubbataha.
In April 2010, Republic Act No. 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act, was enacted to ensure the conservation and preservation of the sanctuary.
Last September, the World Future Council (WFC) lauded the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act for ensuring the effective management of the heritage site, citing the excellent condition of the reef compared with neighboring sites.
“Tubbataha has demonstrated that with carefully planned management, local communities need not bear the burden of closed protected areas, but can be their primary beneficiaries; as a nursery site for fish, the reef supports local artisanal fisheries,” the WFC said in a statement.
Sources: Inquirer Archives; Unesco; tubbatahareef.org; palawanboard.com
On Jan. 17 last year, the Avenger-class minehunter USS Guardian ran aground on the south atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs, which is sailing to Indonesia following a port call on Subic Bay.
The grounding damaged 2,345 square meters of coral on the reefs, a Unesco World Heritage site in the middle of Sulu Sea.
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