Home » Maritime, Ports/Terminals » IMO approves plan to make Tubbataha Reefs off-limits to ships

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The Philippines’ proposal to have the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) in the Sulu Sea established as an “area to be avoided”(ATBA) by shipping vessels—a move to protect its fragile marine environment—has been approved by a sub-committee of the  International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications, and Search and Rescue (NCSR) gave its nod to the proposal at its fourth session held March 6 to March 10.  Approving the entire Tubbataha Reefs as an ATBA is a necessary “associated protective measure” (APM) in order for the area to be approved later on as a “particularly sensitive sea area” (PSSA).

Last year, the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) already approved “in principle” the TRNP being declared as a PSSA, but the final review was undertaken by NCSR.

The decision to establish the TRNP as an ATBA becomes effective on January 1, 2018 after a six-month notification period to the global shipping industry.

Philippine Inter-island Shipping Association (PISA) president Roberto Umali told PortCalls in a text message that the TRNP is not part of the usual trade route of domestic carriers, and vessels that pass through this area are usually those sailing to and from Malaysia and Singapore.

He added that PISA agrees with the declaration of the IMO since “we are all for the protection of the environment, especially the marine sanctuaries. The deviation from the usual navigation lane is a small price to pay for helping save planet Earth.”

Association of International Shipping Lines president Patrick Ronas, also in a text message to PortCalls, said rerouting “should not cause a problem” for foreign carriers in the Philippines.

An ATBA is an area within defined limits that should be avoided by all ships or certain classes of ships because it is hazardous to navigate or it is important to do so to avoid casualties.

A PSSA, on the other hand, is a marine area that merits special protection through action by the IMO to guard against possible damage of its recognized ecological, socioeconomic, or scientific attributes by international shipping activities.

Once an area is approved as a PSSA, specific measures can be used to control maritime activities in that area, such as applying routeing measures, establishing it as an ATBA, and strictly applying the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships discharge and equipment requirements for ships.

NCSR endorsed to the Maritime Safety Division to adopt the ATBA for TRNP at the latter’s next meeting in June 2017. The decision to finally designate the TRNP as a “particularly sensitive sea area to be avoided” would then be endorsed to the MEPC at the committee’s next meeting in July 2017.

With the TRNP being recognized as an ATBA, ship masters sailing in the Sulu Sea will be guided to plot a course that prevents them from entering the Tubbataha Reefs and thereby reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of an accidental ship grounding in the area, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said in a statement.

TRNP is a 97,030-hectare marine protected area in Cagayancillo, Palawan located 150 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa City.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Tubbataha Reefs is a designated national marine protected area through Republic Act No. 10067 (known as the TRNP Act of 2009), which was enacted by the Philippine Congress to provide the national legal and institutional framework to protect the Tubbataha Reefs.

According to a 2015 report by the World Heritage Committee (WHC), the associated protective measure that will safeguard TRNP as an ATBA will apply to all vessels over 150 gross tonnes that are shipping goods through the Sulu Sea.

The Sulu Sea is a major international shipping route within Southeast Asia, WHC noted, adding that with shipping being the most cost-effective means of transporting goods, traffic in the area is projected to grow in the coming years.

The WHC has expressed concern for several years about shipping impacts on TRNP, and noted that the need to protect it became particularly clear after a U.S. Navy vessel ran aground in the unique reef in January 2013. During the same year, a Chinese fishing vessel also ran aground on the north atoll of the reefs, destroying an estimated 3,902 square meters of coral reefs and needing to be salvaged.

According to an NCSR document dated December 6, numerous and varied ships pass over the TRNP, as measured by traded date services company ExactEarth. Cargo ships constitute the majority (about 70%) of such vessels, followed by tankers (about 10%) and other types of ships (about 18%). These do not include ships not equipped with an automatic identification system, particularly numerous smaller domestic vessels. – Roumina Pablo

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