Philippines: Militant group demands action vs marine poachers

Jocelyn R. Uy Philippine Daily Inquirer 26 May 11;

MANILA, Philippines—A militant fisherfolk organization demanded Thursday that the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources identify, and hale to court the poachers behind the recent “mass murder” of marine life off the South Cotabato coast.

“Name names and charge those behind the mass murder of marine environment before any appropriate court. The missing link is the names of people behind this long-running syndicate and major plunder of Philippine marine resources,” said Pamalakaya chair Fernando Hicap.

But in the same breath, it lamented that the government cannot curb the syndicate that continues to plunder the country’s rich waters because of the puny penalties under the law that supposedly protects endangered and rare marine life.

Hicap said big-time poachers funded by foreign and influential corporations can easily buy their freedom since the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 provides only for small fines and little time in jail for violators.

“While the law bans the gathering and selling of corals, the punishment of violators is very light, with imprisonment of six months to two years and a fine of P2,000 to P20,000,” said Hicap.

“It was never meant to protect the country’s resources from big-time poachers,” he added.

Two weeks ago, Customs officials thwarted a plan to smuggle out of the country P35 million worth of stuffed turtles of the endangered kind, black corals and sea shells.

Pamalakaya said the “rape of the Philippine ocean” was a running story in the country.

The group pointed to a US-based company, Shell Horizons Inc., reportedly engaged in the wholesale harvesting and selling of corals from the Philippines.

“[The firm's] website, viewed 10 million times since 1998, parades itself as ‘US Largest Wholesaler of Seashells and Seashell Products, Finest Quality Seashells and Souvenirs Since 1976,” according to the group.

A check on the website showed the company was selling exotic seashells and corals. But it noted that none of the corals it was selling came from the Philippines.

Pamalakaya reminded the government that the Philippines was a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which strongly prohibits the harvesting and trading of corals.

“This long-running crime of plunder and environmental destruction must be stopped,” said Hicap.

The government must exercise all its powers and mobilize all its resources to stop such “transnational predator” from further destroying the country’s marine biodiversity, he added.

The Philippines forms the central core of the “coral triangle,” which refers to the triangular area of the tropical marine waters also of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and East Timor.

The “coral triangle” is home to over 500 species of reef-building corals. The country’s 7,107 islands encompass some 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs.

Incoming fisheries chief vows to stop coral reef destruction
Delfin T. Mallari, Jr. Inquirer Southern Luzon 26 May 11;

LUCENA CITY, Philippines—Environmentalist lawyer Asis Perez, the incoming director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, vowed on Thursday to stop the destruction of coral reefs in the Philippines seas, which he described as rampant.

The coral reef “is the most abused eco-system not only because of the lucrative coral collection trade, but mostly due to actual destruction as result of continuous irresponsible fishing methods like dynamite fishing,” Perez said in a telephone interview.

Perez said he would focus on “educating the citizenry” on the importance of preserving the country’s fragile marine resources, particularly coral reefs.

“Most of our people are not yet aware of the importance of our corals. We have to seriously address that problem. The first step toward the a creation of a balanced environment and the preservation of our precious natural resources is to have an enlightened citizenry,” said Perez, former executive director of Tanggol Kalikasan (Defense of Nature), a public interest environmental law office.

He said most of the people are likely to follow the law if they know, and understand what it is all about.

Perez said the cost of educating the citizens about the importance of the environment was modest “but its impact on the environment would be immeasurable.”

On Tuesday, government authorities reported the confiscation of thousands of black corals which had been taken from a reef complex off Miondanao’s Cotabato area.

Bureau of Customs personnel intercepted the contraband two weeks ago and recovered 21,169 pieces of “sea fan” black corals, and hundreds of “sea whip” black corals.

Perez lamented that coral reef poaching was still rampant in the country, particularly in the seas off the Zamboanga Peninsula and the Cotabato area.

He also noted that in the past corals were used in construction. “Most of our old piers were built with coral foundations,” he said.

Perez said one of his challenges when he assumes the BFAR post is the shortage of personnel to enforce the laws meant to protect the country’s marine eco-system.

“While BFAR has an enforcement function, we lack enforcement personnel,” he said, noting that the bureau has to rely on other law enforcement units to combat coral reef poachers.

He said BFAR was also handicapped in that it had no authority to enforce the law in municipal waters where the coral reefs are often located.

The BFAR, which is under the Department of Agriculture, is responsible for the development, improvement, management and conservation of the country’s fisheries and aquatic resources. It was reconstituted as a line bureau by Republic Act No. 8550 (Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998).

Perez, who was recognized by the Species Survival Network, a global coalition of 82 organizations in more than 30 countries, as a “true protector of wildlife resources,” took his oath of office as BFAR chief last Monday. He will assume office on June 1.

He will replace Gil Adora, the officer in charge appointed after Malcolm Sarmiento retired last month.

Perez said he would push for more police visibility to keep watch on the country’s municipal waters.

“Because even if the people were aware of the law, there are still some of them who would violate it if there’s a chance,” he said.

Citing the experience of Tanggol Kalikasan in the campaign to protect and preserve the Sierra Madre section of Isabela, Perez said that after more than a year of continuous operations against illegal loggers, and educating the people about the importance of preserving the forest, at least 90 percent of local residents expressed approval over what the conservationists were doing.

“But we still have to face the remaining ten percent of the people as potential violators. Educating the people is one thing, police visibility is another because there are still threats from potential violators,” he said.