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Protecting the endangered ‘pawikan’

In Photo: Environmental activist Alexandra Cousteau with a green marine turtle during a visit to explore Apo Reef last year.

With the continuing decline of the global population of marine turtles, the Philippines is mulling over to move for stronger conservation measures under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).

Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said she intends to take the opportunity to make the pitch when the country hosts the 12th Conference of Parties (COP12) of the CMS in Manila from October 23 to 28.

As host of the meeting, Lim said the Philippines is privileged to set the tone of the talks. She added side events for Sulu Sulawesi would be a good venue for the Philippines to pitch the call for marine turtles’ protection and conservation.

Discussions on sustainable tourism, she added, will also be an opportune time to raise the issue of marine turtle conservation “because marine turtles are also ecotourism attraction.”

“If we are able to manage tourism in all the areas they pass through, then that will support our protection efforts,” Lim said.

An environmental treaty under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, CMS, which is also called the Bonn Convention, provides a global platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats.

A party to environmental treaty along with 123 other countries, the Philippines is the only country in Asia, which signed the treaty. It has been a party to the Bonn Convention since 1994.

Globally endangered

Global population of the marine turtles is dwindling owing to the unabated poaching for their meat, shell and eggs, while reproduction is mired by habitat destruction, accidental by-catch, ocean plastic pollution and climate change.

One of the 17 mega-diverse countries in the world because of the high concentration of plant and animal species, the Philippines is also a biodiversity hot spot because of the rapid rate of biodiversity loss.

Five of the seven known marine turtle species can be found in the Philippines. It hosts one of the most important nesting sites of the green turtles—the Turtle Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Tawi-Tawi province—in Southeast Asia.

Biggest threats

AA Yaptinchay, director at the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWWP), a non-governmental organization (NGO) advocating for the conservation and protection of marine-wildlife and their habitats, said the biggest threats to marine turtle population include poaching.

“Eating the eggs and meat [of marine turtles] is still rampant throughout the country,” he said.

Also, Yaptinchay said the unabated development of many coastal areas is destroying beaches, the nesting sites of marine turtles. Other problems threatening marine turtle population are by-catch in fisheries, marine debris and plastic pollution causing numerous deaths.

“All these need to be addressed,” Yaptinchay added.

The MWWP has been a partner of the DENR in protecting and conserving marine wildlife.

Its most recent project involves the localized movement studies of marine turtles in feeding areas, development of a database system for marine turtles for better research and monitoring and a component of information, communication, education and advocacy to help increase the public’s awareness and technical expertise through, training and genetic studies for population assessment.

Illegal wildlife trade

Poor enforcement of environmental laws, particularly the law against wildlife trafficking, is a big problem in the Philippines.

On September 11 elements of the Philippine Regional Police-Regional Maritime Unit in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao arrested six fishermen for possession of 23 live marine turtles, assorted dried fresh turtle meat and turtle shells, in violation of Republic Act 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act. The arrest was made on the waters of Barangay Timuddas, Pata, Sulu. The ongoing marine turtle population-management program of the government continues to suffer a huge setback from the unabated illegal wildlife trade, particularly the poaching of endangered marine turtles, despite the ongoing campaign of various law-enforcement units.

By-catch of marine turtles and other nontarget species in fisheries is also a cause for concern, as fishers tend to slaughter anything for food or added income.

Conservation experts from the United States have recently expressed alarm over the problem, noting that the US and the Philippines share a vast population of marine turtles in the Pacific.

Several marine turtles from the US have been tracked through satellite telemetry as traveling all the way from US territories to forage in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao.

US-Philippines collaboration

The Philippines and the US are currently working to collaborate for a research project on shared marine turtle population, particularly the Pacific.

Initial meetings were held last month between the US and the Philippines through representatives from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the DENR-BMB to explore possible areas of collaboration.

During the meetings, experts from NOAA and the Philippines shared initial findings of ongoing research aimed at protecting and conserving the marine turtles, including studies on their behavior at sea using satellite telemetry.

NOAA experts also shared technologies to reduce by-catch of marine turtles and other nontargeted species in fisheries, which the DENR-BMB hopes to adapt to reduce the mortality of turtles.

Network of MPAs

The DENR is currently developing networks of marine-protected areas (MPAs) to boost its ongoing conservation program for marine turtles.

“The establishment of a network of MPAs will ensure the protection of known nesting grounds and habitats of marine turtles, locally known as pawikan,” Lim said in an interview on Tuesday.

Pablo de los Reyes of the DENR-BMB said in presentation during one of the meetings with US NOAA experts that through the project called “Development of a Network of Protected Areas to Safeguard Marine turtles and their Habitats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape,” the DENR-BMB has identified four MPAs as initial components.

These are the El Nido-Taytay Management Resource Protected Area (ENTMRPA) shared by the towns of El Nido and Taytay in Palawan; the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), a bird and marine sanctuary in the middle of the Sulu Sea; Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary (TIWS), in Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi; and MPAs in the municipality of Balabac, also in Palawan. The ENTMRPA, TRNP and TIWS are protected areas covered by the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act. The DENR-BMB is working to establish an MPA in Balabac, Palawan.

Another initiative, he said, is the establishment of a network of MPAs called Cabatales, which expands the coverage in three provinces, namely, Cavite, Bataan and Zambales. It will be a network of the three provinces in support of marine turtle conservation.

“The establishment of Cabatales was a result of the Governor’s Forum conducted in 2016,” de los Reyes said.

The DENR-BMB, he added, provides technical assistance to the LGUs under the three provinces.

He said the agreement among the provinces is being reviewed by the provincial governments of Cavite, Bataan and Zambales.

Pawikan Conservation Program

De los Reyes and Dr. Rizza Araceli Salinas reported during the same meeting that the Pawikan Conservation Program (PCP), which started in 1979 and focused in Tawi-Tawi, is also extended in other areas, with the support of various DENR partners.

Among its activities include the monitoring of nesting sites, the collection of morphometric data and the application of turtle tags.

From 1982 to 2016 Salinas said 14,997 marine turtles were tagged under the program.

There are currently three turtle hatcheries in Tawi-Tawi: on the islands of Taganak, Lihiman and Baguan. The activity involves the collection of marine turtle eggs to protect them against natural predation of animals and humans, and against damage caused by natural phenomenon like storm surges and climate-change triggered sea-level rise.

Last year, under the program, 72,941 eggs that were collected from various unsafe nesting sites were transplanted into the hatcheries. During the period, 71,487 were hatched and eventually released into the ocean.

Beyond the Turtle Island Wildlife Sanctuary, a total of 5,150 marine turtles were also tagged.

The DENR-BMB also conducts surveys of nesting habitats. It has identified 546 sites in 208 towns in 46 provinces.

As part of the illegal wildlife-trade campaign, Salinas reported that apprehensions conducted between June 2010 and July 2017 had involved a total of 9,228 eggs, 47 green turtles and 1,785 hawkbills turtles.

Those apprehended perpetrators include Malaysian, Chinese and Vietnamese poachers trespassing in Philippine waters, she reported. Currently, the DENR has forged partnerships under PCP with 21 LGUs, 12 NGOs, four people’s organizations, seven academic institutions, six private sectors and three national government agencies.

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