IMO: Tubbataha ‘area to be avoided’

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The entire Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TNRP) will officially be an Area to be Avoided (ATBA) by all maritime traffic, after the International Maritime Organization (IMO) endorsed the Philippines’ proposal to upgrade the protection of the area.

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The IMO Subcommittee on Navigation, Communications, and Search and Rescue (NCSR) approved the proposal during its meeting March 6 to 10 at the IMO Headquarters in London. The formal adoption and implementation of the ATBA designation is expected during the next meeting of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) on June 7 to 16.

Once the ATBA is adopted, ship masters sailing through the Sulu Sea will be guided to plot a course that will not enter the Tubbataha Reefs and thereby reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of accidental ship grounding by keeping ships well away from the TRNP and its component coral reef atolls/structures.

Last year, the Philippines submitted its application to the 69th session of the IMO- Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) to designate the TRNP, an offshore reef complex in the Sulu Sea with an estimated surface area of 127,989 square miles, as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area.

The MEPC subsequently endorsed the application to the MSC for consideration and approval of the ATBA as a protective measure to be implemented in the TRNP. The NCSR, one of the subcommittees of the MSC, was directed to review the application, which had a favorable outcome.

To complete the process at IMO, MSC will endorse its decision on the matter to the 71st session of the MEPC scheduled for July 3 to 7 to designate the TNRP as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA).

When an area is declared as a particularly sensitive sea area, specific measures can be used to control maritime activities in that area as routing measures, strict application of marine pollution (MARPOL) discharges, specific equipment requirements for ships, along with the adoption of the ATBA, and other guidelines.

The TRNP, which is approximately 80 nautical miles from the island of Palawan, lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the richest biogeographic region in the world. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a living laboratory for the study of marine ecological processes and climate change adaptation.

The threat to the reefs from errant shipping was highlighted in January 2013, when a US Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian, ran aground on Tubbataha Reef. The ship had to be dismantled to remove it from the reef, and the US government later paid P87 million in damages to the Philippines for the accident.

The Philippine Delegation which made the presentation to the Experts Group meeting was led by Philippine Permanent Representative to the IMO, Gilberto Asuque and Prof. Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines, assisted by Capt. Eustacio Nimrod Enriquez of the Philippine Coast Guard.

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