Text and photos by Ritche T. Salgado
CEBU CITY — Tañon Strait, the country’s only protected seascape that has been declared specifically for the protection of cetaceans living in the area, is in danger.
The strait is a very narrow strip of water separating the islands of Cebu and Negros. It has a total coastline of 452.7 km and a total area of 3,108 square kilometers. Its deepest point would reach to at most 509 meters.
Of the 26 species of cetaceans found in the Philippines, Tañon Strait is home to 14, and serves as a major migration route for whale sharks (Rhincodon typus).
In May 1998, then President Fidel V. Ramos signed Presidential Decree 1234 in a lavish ceremony held in the waters of Tañon Strait. The decree ensures that this important habitat of marine mammals would be protected. But all that was in vain when Service Contract 46 was granted to JAPEX-Philippines on Dec. 21, 2004. This contract allowed JAPEX to explore and exploit 2,850 square kilometers offshore of Tañon Strait for possible presence of fossil fuel.
Because of the continued opposition from different sectors, led by local organizations of fisherfolks like PAMANA-SUGBO and PAMALAKAYA-NEGROS, JAPEX was forced to withdraw its interest in Tañon Strait. But still, SC46 is up for grabs.
Although oil exploration is halted at the moment, the inhabitants of the strait continue to struggle for their existence as they compete with commercial fishing vessels for food. These vessels do not limit themselves to fish alone — apparently, they include cetaceans in their daily catch.
One night’s catch for a commercial fishing vessel cannot be caught by a local fisherman in his lifetime, according to Lemnuel V. Aragones, PhD, who has been studying the waters of Tañon Strait since the ’90s.
Dr. Aragones, who is also an associate professor at the University of the Philippines – Institute of Environment Science and Meteorology, said that commercial fishing is illegal in the waters of Tañon Strait because the whole of the strait are municipal waters for all of the 36 municipalities and cities of Cebu and Negros islands that share the strait. The law provides that the sea of up to 15 kilometers from the coastline is considered municipal water, and local fishermen are given the priority to fish in its waters. The longest distance between Cebu and Negros roughly reaches 30 kilometers.
What make matters worse is that some municipalities have passed ordinances that allow commercial fishing vessels to operate in the area.
Until the local governments bordering the Tañon Strait realize the importance of protecting this very important seascape, the inhabitants of this richly diverse marine habitat will continue to be in danger. (Bulatlat.com)