On 20 January 2011, a report on the state of conservation of the property was submitted by the State Party. The report gives a detailed overview of the implementation of the recommendations adopted by the World Heritage Committee at the time of the property’s extension at its 33rd session (Seville, 2009).
a) Illegal fishing
The State Party reports that the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) has increased cooperation with government authorities in adjacent provinces, in order to more effectively reduce the use of fish aggregation devices located in the buffer zone of the property, which currently falls outside the jurisdiction of the TMO. The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009 was enacted in April 2010, addressing issues relating to law enforcement, including prosecution of illegal fishing cases. The State Party notes that the prosecution process and the decision timeframe of environmental cases throughout its territory, including illegal fishing within the property, has shortened since the New Rules on Procedures of Environmental Cases took effect in April 2010. It also notes that intensive Information, Education and Communication (IEC) campaigns implemented in the local communities, where most apprehended illegal fishers are based, have greatly contributed to enhancing compliance with the ‘no-take’ status of the property, as the low number of illegal fishing related arrests made in 2010 shows.
Though the reported progress is encouraging, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that the TMO’s budget for patrols is small in relation to the property’s area. Without an adequate, stable patrolling budget, it will remain difficult to effectively protect the property from those illegal fishers that cannot be deterred by IEC campaigns.
b) Designation of the Sulu Sea as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA)
The State Party reports that two proposed Archipelagic Sea Lanes overlap with approximately 70% of the property and notes that the designation of the Sulu Sea as a PSSA would enhance the protection of the property. However, the State Party also notes that the lack of information on the volume, origin and destination of ships passing the property, as well as the nature of their cargo, has been a major obstacle to applying for this designation. While the TMO has undertaken efforts to obtain this information, it has encountered a lack of cooperation from the captains and crews of passing vessels.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note the apparent blockage of PSSA status over what appears to be a resolvable technical issue. Advice from the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Division should be sought, and if necessary, request International Assistance from the World Heritage Fund to help overcome the blockage.
c) Ecological monitoring, particularly related to climate change
The State Party reports that the Technical Working Group of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) drafted a research plan for the property in 2006, which included research to assess the condition of the marine ecosystem as well as evaluate management effectiveness. This plan was recently updated to include research on divers’ impacts, potential impacts of future tourism products, climate change impacts, and impacts of solid and other waste on the property. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN reiterate the Committee’s request that the State Party put in place a programme of ecological monitoring of the property, with an emphasis on the effects of climate change on sea surface temperature, coral bleaching, storm frequency and other factors that could be related to climate change. They regret that the State Party did not report on progress achieved in this regard, and urge the State Party to put in place a programme for ecological monitoring, with an emphasis on climate change.
d) Tourism management
The State Party and other stakeholders recognize the lack of tourism impact monitoring on the property’s Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) as a management gap that needs to be filled. The State Party reports that it has included studies on tourism impacts in the revised research plan as a response to this need. In addition, the State Party notes the intention of TPAMB and TMO to put in place an accreditation system to regulate dive masters, crew and boat operators, in order to promote conservation awareness among tourism businesses. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider the establishment of an accreditation system a positive step, but suggest that this system alone will not fill the management gap, and that a comprehensive tourism management plan is urgently needed to ensure that tourism pressures are addressed.
e) Need for sustainable financing
The State Party reports that the amount of unfunded activities and unmet target deliverables has been reduced in 2010, as a result of financial contributions from a number of agencies, including the National and Provincial Governments, NGOs and other external grants. In an effort to further ensure sustainable funding for TPAMB operations, the State Party has identified three strategies, namely i) establishing a fund for online donations; ii) exploring alternative tourism activities, and iii) local, national and international marketing through the tourism network. The State Party further reports that the 2011 Management Plan for the property strongly invokes Section 16 of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act (2009), which states that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development should cooperate to provide technical and financial assistance to the property, and that the DENR has already taken steps to allocate funds to the property in their 2012 budget.
f) Other conservation issues
The State Party reports increasing population trends amongst certain species of sea-birds and starfish that may be a cause for alarm, as the species in question have the potential to displace others. The State Party notes that it is taking all possible precaution to avoid adverse impacts from these species on the property’s OUV.
Under the recently enacted Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act (2009), a 10-nautical mile buffer zone was established around the property, which by law is defined outside its boundaries. However, the jurisdiction of the TPAMB and TMO is limited to the property, which makes their jurisdiction over the buffer zone unclear. The State Party notes that various national agencies with authority over the rest of the Sulu Sea can continue to enforce environmental laws in the property’s buffer zone, until the issue has been clarified. The current jurisdictional ambiguities within the newly declared buffer zone should be resolved to the satisfaction of World Heritage interests, either by extending the mandate of the TMO to this area, or by finding other suitable arrangements.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note with concern the State Party’s report of the build-up of non-biodegradable waste in the property, which it speculates to originate from passing vessels or be carried by ocean currents from other islands. The State Party notes that, due to the magnitude of the problem, no immediate solution to this threat could be identified, except to cooperate with national and international agencies concerned and to collect and properly dispose of as much of the garbage as possible.