Yellow flags of biodiversity destruction

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

BONGAO, Tawi-tawi – The wet market has fish of all kinds, from pelagic (mackerel, frigate tuna, and skip jacks) to reef fishes like groupers, triggerfish, rays, and banded cat shark, and different kinds of crustaceans. Over at the Chinese Pier is a live fish buyer who has tanks of groupers of all kinds, including what the trader described as “Class A”: the blue-spotted grouper. Along the pier are two dried fish vendors among whose displays are dried sting rays.

Everywhere, you see fishing villages on stilts and the horizon is dotted by tiny fishing boats. Fishing is obviously the main source of livelihood here and the fishery resources in this southernmost part of the country are still lush and as diverse as they can come.

But, Tawi-tawi Gov. Nurbert M. Sahali, Bongao Mayor Jasper S. Que, Geronimo T. Silvestre, the chief of party of the USAID-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Ecofish Project, and Philippine National Police-Maritime Group Director Chief Supt. Noel Lazarus C. Vargas were one in saying, illegal fishing is a problem and can easily get out of hand when not addressed.

“Comparatively, the Tawi-tawi marine biodiversity is not yet as bad as in other parts of the country; in fact, it’s fairly intact like the Pacific Coast of Bicol to Visayas, and the South China Sea of Palawan, but, if hayaan natin ito, we won’t have the heritage biodiversity of the country for long,” Silvestre said in an interview during the launch of 700-Daloy (Dedicated Alert Lines for Ocean Biodiversity) in Bongao last week.

The waters are crystal clear everywhere, but in some areas, garbage can be seen floating around underneath the houses; they’re not as bad as we see them here, but they are just as ubiquitous there, moreso because they stand out against the pristine environment.

“You see a lot of illegal fishing going on, cyanide, dynamite fishing, there is over-harvesting, and there is the live fish trade,” he added.

While live fish trade seems legitimate, the manner by which the reef fishes are caught to gather the volume required by the market hints at an illegal method – cyanide.

Cyanide is sprayed into the hiding place of a grouper in a coral reef to stun the fish. The fish is then extracted from its rocky hideaway and hauled up into a vat of water. The fish will recover after a while, but the corals that get sprayed with cyanide will die; worse, the cyanide will linger on. Multiply this method at around 1.2 tons of live fish every day, imagine the destruction.

Gov. Sahali attributes the proliferation of dynamite fishing to government agricultural projects that fall on the wrong hands. Aside from fishes, what you will notice in Bongao is the proliferation of mangoes – from the small Kabayo variety, to the plump Indian and Apple mango, the Filipino favorite mangangkalabaw, the aromatic manga Juani, and the manga Cebu. Ammonium nitrate is a popular fertilizer for mango trees. It is also the main ingredient in making explosives.

Add to that the province’s growing population, particularly in Bongao, and as Silvestre would describe it, “yellow flags” are waving everywhere.

“They’re not yet red flags, we can say they are still yellow flags, but they are all ready there,” he said.

Tawi-Tawi at a glance

Tawi-tawi is made up of 11 island municipalities composed of over 300 islands and islets. The center and the most populous is Bongao.

Just across is Panglima Sugala, formerly known as Balimbing, and the historic Simunul, which houses the oldest mosque in the country and home of the Sheikh Makdum, one of the early pioneers in the spread of the Islamic religion in the country.

The other municipalities are Languyan, Mapun (Cagayan De Tawi-Tawi or Cagayan de Sulu), Sapa-Sapa, Sibutu, Sitangkai, South Ubian, Tandubas, and the Turtle Islands.

It is closer to Malaysia than Mainland Mindanao. In fact, one of the seven islands of Turtle Islands, is just a 15-minute motorboat ride to Sandakan in Malaysia while it will take six hours from Bongao. It is that near such that the currency used is Malaysian ringgit instead of Philippine peso.

Growing Population

The poblacion of Bongao has very narrow streets thus causing massive traffic congestion, mostly of two-stroke motorcycles made into tricycles and a few vans and pickups.

“Nabiglaang Tawi-tawi, biglang dumami ang tao, biglang dumami ang basura,” Mayor Que admitted.

Their major problems are water and power. The capital is served by a 3MW power barge. The present demand is already at 3.6MW, the mayor said.

Thus, amid the scorching heat of an island climate that only has Bud Bongao, the craggy small mountain that defines the landscape of the capital, residents and visitors alike have to suffer through long hours without power supply. In the background you hear the sound of diesel-powered generators providing light at night.

Illegal Methods

Enforcement of fishing laws is also a recognized problem, that is the very reason why illegal and destructive methods still prevail.

“Overharvesting happens. Illegal fishing, the use of small mesh nets, all of those things are happening because of our inability to implement rules,” Silvestre said. “You can have all the good ordinance, all the good programs, but if we cannot implement them, then we are in trouble.”

Silvestre acknowledges the fact that there are those who use sustainable practices, which are more labor-intensive and time consuming. “Unfortunately, they are the minority,” he said.

Chief Supt. Vargas who rode the martimie police vessel all the way from Palawan described the situation maritime law enforcers face.

“Along the way, walakaming communication,” he said. It’s all open sea, no cellphone signals.

Vargas expressed fascination over how the fishermen they encountered along the way can tell directions and markers, like a coral outcrop or a sandbar in what a regular eye can only perceive as a deep blue sea. “Parang may built-in GPS sila,” he said.

With lack of communication, there is no way that illegal activities can be reported at the time when legal action can still be done. As in all destructive methods of fishing, the evidence that can send a violator to jail can easily be concealed or disposed of in the vastness of the Sulu Sea.

Patrolling is also a problem, he said, because even fishermen have to carry loads of fuel in their boats to be able to travel far.

“Walang islet nanagtitindangkrudo, angsamganakasalubongnamin, ang supply nilagaling pa ngBataraza (Palawan),” Vargas added.


Thus, officials were all in attendance at the launching of the 700-Daloy, “a campaign to improve information flows for enhanced marine environment protection”, which is being piloted in Tawi-tawi.

It is described as “ambitious” as it relies on a public-private partnership brokered by BFAR-USAID Ecofish between the PNP-Maritime Group and the Smart Communications Inc.

It establishes the SMS hotline 700-32569 for the public to pass on critical information “relating to marine environment protection in the Philippines to the PNP-MG.”

The objectives of the project are:
• Establish an official SMS hotline managed by the PNP-MG to facilitate information flowers between the general public and the PNP-MG to assist in marine environmental protection in Tawi-tawi and the country;
• Enhance the capacity of the PNP-MG towards properly managing and analyzing the information flows;
• Build a constituency of at least 700 unique reporters under the system;
• Generate traffic of at least 700 tests on a monthly basis.
The project will be piloted in Tawi-tawi until October 2014 to serve as a model for the national roll-out in 2015.

As part of the communication equipment for maritime law enforcement, Smart has provided 95 smartphones and 5 satellite phones for Tawi-tawi. With vast seas separating islands and islets making cellular phone signals difficult to come by, satellite phones come in handy for law enforcement.

The government officials present in the launching were hopeful that with means to communicating anywhere, the illegal fishers and poachers will finally be lassoed in or at least discouraged from continuing with their practices.

“Ang problema sa Tawi-tawi, the more we instill awareness among our people, the more poachers come in, sana makulong na ang dapat makulong,” Rep. Ruby M. Sahali said.

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