Encompassing 97,000 hectares, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is one of the greatest Philippine natural treasures. Its global ecological importance is recognized as studies show that it is a source of larvae for the fishing grounds and coral reefs around the Sulu Sea (U.P. Visayas 2010). The atoll reefs of Tubbataha are also home to thousands of marine species that attract scuba diving tourists and researchers from all over the world to revel in the underwater wonders that this unique marine park offers.
This report is an analysis of the condition of the Tubbataha Reefs, at seven selected and recognized dive sites within the protected area. Live hard coral ranged from fair to good. The highest percentage of live hard coral (LHC) was recorded at NR-2 (Ranger Station) in the deep portion of the reef with 55.9 ± 10.3%, which was followed by SR-4 (Black Rock Anchorage, 51.3 ± 10.7 Jessie Beazley was the lowest (49.8 ± 12.2%). Despite a Crown-of-Thorns breakout at NR-2 in 2009, LHC cover seems to have been maintained since 2008.
The overall trend suggests that LHC has generally been improving over time since the 1998 ENSO bleaching episode as seen in significant and increasing trend of LHC cover from 2000 to the present. The general declining pattern in fish densities and species diversity were most likely influenced by external factors, e.g.,observer bias (less experienced fish visual census specialists) and variation in spatial distribution of fish communities throughout the expedition. Butterflyfish species seen totaled to 28. The study site with the highest fish density (3169 ± 1035.5 fish/500m2), highest species richness (41.8 ± 8.6 species/500m2) and highest target fish biomass (447.5 ± 438.6 kg/500m2) was SR1/Lighthouse.
Throughout the expedition, it was observed by researchers that there was an increase in large marine life sightings – sharks, Napoleon wrasses, turtles, Bumphead parrotfish, rays, and even a Whaleshark – as compared to 2008. With the recent addition of Jessie Beazley Reef to the marine park, and with its inclusion in regular patrolling, an improvement in this site is evident this year. LHC appears to be increasing, suggesting recovery, although not at significant levels. Recognized as a major source of fish and coral larva for fisheries, upon observation by researchers, the reef shows general recovery overall with high fish density (1427.2 ± 302.3 fish/500m2) and moderate fish species richness (27.2 ± 5.8 species/500m2) .
In conclusion, one can only notice that Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park continues to be a proud legacy of the Tubbataha Management Office and its Park Rangers. As an important and rich marine resource, it continues to lend hope to the Philippines in sustaining food security and increasing eco-tourism. The Saving Philippine Reefs team is confident that the dedicated individuals behind the protection of TRNP will continue to stay inspired and
motivated with these results. It is important to maintain and improve efforts in patrolling, education, and research to maintain the already resilient protected area to overcome future challenges.
With a management history spanning over two decades, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park management group has had a good share of lessons and experiences that have helped them evolve and effectively protect one of the most diverse coral reef areas in the Philippines. Yet, despite this, as with all other large endeavors, there is always room for improvements to be made. These suggestions and recommendations are given by the SPR survey research
group from fresh eyes as observers, visitors, and mainly, passionate marine conservationists that wish to contribute to sustaining Philippines’ precious reefs through improved management.
Rangers require additional boats for more effective and efficient patrolling. Due to the large area that the north and south atolls cover, active patrolling by the park wardens is imperative to prevent fishing intrusions. Although the fish wardens do have boats, additional higher-speed boats may be required to make patrolling more efficient and effective, especially during June to February which is the non-tourist season. Rangers have also expressed how helpful it would be to have a small lookout station at Bird Islet where they can maintain a watch and where they can also assist researchers that do regular bird censuses.
Tourism activity to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park needs to be better managed. Every year, visitors to TRNP increases because it is getting more recognition from international organizations as a well-protected, and resource-rich ecosystem. With this increase comes more responsibility to coordinate dive operators, dive boats, visitors and the activities that they do in the no-take zones. This also point to the importance of educating boat operators, visitors, and divers on park objectives and regulations. More materials and visual aids can be developed by the TMO that appropriately and clearly reflects the importance of the protected area and what visitors can do to avoid any kind of damage to it. This also means training boat operators and divemasters in orienting visitors before entering and diving in the park.
Stakeholders should be informed of monitoring and evaluation reports and results – Research in Tubbataha has been collected since 1984 by several organizations and conservation groups. However, this information still needs to be shared among stakeholders in a manner that they understand and appreciate. This information is often updated every year, so it is essential that the results are shared to increase awareness about the protected area with locals and to encourage policy formulation to benefit protection.
Regular monitoring and more research to sustain and inform management – With the past ENSO bleaching episodes and the unexpected Acanthaster planci outbreaks, it is important for managers to regularly monitor different parameters that may be the cause (e.g.temperature). This will allow them to plan on how to better respond to any damage caused by such in similar future events to minimize damage. Further, allowing innovative research to continue in the area will benefit the park so that they can learn more about the importance of this precious resource and how it directly affects Philippine fisheries (e.g.larval distribution). It may benefit Tubbataha to note and investigate the steep declines in fish densities and species richness in SR-4 recorded in this survey. It is recommend that a small scale fish monitoring in this area be made at a regular intervals within the year to check the patterns of temporal and spatial variations of fish densities in this area.
Conduct assessments with more experienced fish visual census specialists – Future expedition surveys would benefit from more collaborative work with fish visual census specialists that have previously monitored Tubbataha. For repeated long-term monitoring, it is important to have members of the team that are wellversed, and experienced, with the fish fauna of the area.
The full report