The Best Marine Park
that appears on the surface are two islets and a series of sandbars
and coral shoals. Underneath, however, lie submerged reefs that
stretch some 16 km, rising from the ocean bed to form two atolls
just under the waves of the Sulu Sea. They support 300 species of
coral, nearly 400 of fish and at least eight of marine mammals.
Not surprisingly, the Tubbataha reef system is the most biologically
diverse in the Philippines. "There's nothing else like it in the
country, maybe even the world," says Noel Dumaup, of the World Wide
Fund for Nature in Manila.
A red-orange reef crab.
Yet the outlook for Tubbataha, which lies 100 km east of Palawan,
seemed bleak not so long ago. Its relative isolation protected the
waters from pollution. But overfishing and dynamiting were wrecking
one of nature's most spectacular creations. From 1984-89, coral
cover shrank by half. Then came a turning point. Responding to a
campaign by concerned divers, Manila declared the reefs a marine
park in 1988 the only one in the country. Fishing and coral
collection were outlawed and in 1993 the United Nations named Tubbataha
a world heritage site.
Despite some errant blasting, the protection has worked wonders.
"We've had about 40% regrowth in the past two years," says Dumaup.
In south Tubbataha, what was coral rubble a few years ago is now
beautifully recovering reef. Marine populations are reviving too:
Larger schools of reef fish as well as such open-ocean species as
barracuda are reported. Not to mention dolphins and sharks.
Park authorities now require divers to pay user fees ($50 for foreigners;
$25 for locals) to support research and conservation. It's a good
investment. Scientists believe most fish in the Palawan region originate
from Tubbataha. Indeed, well-managed reefs can yield 15 tons of
fish and shrimp per sq km each year.
By Maria Cheng
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