Lawak Island, Kalayaan municipality in the West Philippine Sea. (Photo from the Naval Forces West)
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A sizeable portion of Lawak Island, a Philippine-occupied feature in the disputed West Philippine Sea, has been designated as a protected area due to its threatened bird residents and potential as a green sea turtle nesting site.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) said 3.79 hectares of the 5.53-hectare island under the municipal jurisdiction of Kalayaan were declared as critical habitat by members of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) through Resolution No. 2022-827 on September 8.

PCSDS executive director Atty. Teodoro Jose Matta said Lawak is a sanctuary with six bird species, three of which are threatened: sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus), greater crested tern (Thalasseus beraii), and brown noddy (Anous stolidus).

The others are great egret (Ardea alba), little egret (Egretta grazetta), and barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). The birds known to breed on the island are the brown noddy and sooty tern.

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A sooty tern safeguarding its egg on Lawak Island in the municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan province. (Photo from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development)

“It is now a national government-declared protected area (PA) under the management of PCSD, and the Philippine Navy (PN). This is a result of exhaustive consultations with the municipality of Kalayaan, Western Command (WESCOM), and the Philippine Navy. This is the first critical habitat/protected area in the heart of WPS,” he said, citing that the move is a clear manifestation of sovereign rights.

Matta said that because of the island’s special physical and biological importance, it will be forbidden to engage in activities that would endanger the lives of the wildlife species that it has.

Lawak will be managed by PCSD and the Philippine Navy in terms of environmental protection as it is a crucial habitat and a protected area under Republic Acts 9147 (Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act) and 7611 (Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan Act).

This undated photo from the PCSDS shows a flock of greater crested terns on the shores of Lawak.

Scientific expedition
Matta said it has been brought to their attention that the island may be a stopover, if not a nesting area, for green sea turtles traveling from feeding grounds in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Guam.

To confirm the information, the PCSDS will lead a scientific expedition to Lawak “sometime soon.”

“We’re planning to do a scientific expedition. There are no details yet, but it will be sometime soon. The only thing that was done there so far was a study on the aviary—it is a breeding area for certain species of birds. What we will study, because apparently from U.S. government sources, the green sea turtles from Honolulu, from Hawaii, and from Guam, they also have migratory destinations in the West Philippine Sea (WPS),” he said.

“One destination that was identified by the U.S. government is Lawak Island. We’re going to have a scientific expedition not only to study the avian species, but also the nocturnal marine species, including sea turtles,” he added.

A pair of brown noddy perched atop a tree on Lawak. (Photo from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development)

Soil chemistry testing
The expedition will also include soil chemistry testing on the island to prevent vegetation loss due to high phosphate levels, he said.

“We’ll conduct soil chemistry tests because we don’t want Lawak’s vegetation to suffer from high phosphate levels caused by bird feces, as what happened in Tubbataha,” he said.

He cited that too much phosphorus in the soil can be detrimental to the overall health of the vegetation.

The type of intervention that will be put in place to keep the island as a bird sanctuary with two lagoons—one with fresh water and the other with salt water—will be decided after baseline data has been gathered.

“It is a haven for life… for wildlife,” Matta said.

Kalayaan LGU’s take
Eugenio Bitoonon Jr., former mayor of Kalayaan and current municipal councilor who is also a part of the Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN), said they are happy that a significant portion of Lawak has been classified as a habitat that needs to be protected for biodiversity and the related ecosystem services.

“The whole Lawak Island had been declared as a bird sanctuary by the local government of Kalayaan during the time of mayors (Gil) Policarpo and (Rosendo) Mantes. This is a welcome development—finally, there will be plans on how to manage it,” Bitoonon said.

“PCSD has the power to declare it as a protected area. If the LGU can help, then better, and this can be defined in the memorandum of agreement that will be signed,” he added.

Councilor Maurice Philipp Alexis “MP” Albayda, on the other hand, claimed that the PCSD’s act is in line with their future plans for eco-tourism to pump up Kalayaan’s economy and solidify the country’s territorial claim in the WPS.

He claimed that because he was involved in a previous PCSDS ocular inspection on Lawak, he is aware of the need to safeguard the island because it is home to migratory birds that are currently listed as threatened.

“From that ocular inspection, I know how important the island is and the bird treasures it has. So, indeed, this is a welcome development because it is in support of our future eco-tourism vision for Kalayaan municipality. We welcome that because, as a protected area, its natural ecosystem will be conserved for the migratory birds,” Albayda told Palawan News.

The island, he added, also serves as a “marker” when residents and LGU officials travel to Kalayaan. “When we go to Pag-asa Island, Kalayaan, or go back to Puerto, it serves as our navigational guide. When we see the birds, we know we’re already near Lawak.”

Civilian environmental enforcers
The plan, according to Matta, calls for setting up “civilian rangers or environmental enforcers ” on Lawak to assert sovereignty while calming down the situation in WPS.

He noted that the provincial government has a budget for the purpose and that the PCSD wishes to seek funding for the Lawak protected area in order to build ranger stations.

While this is being worked out, Philippine Navy personnel who are already on the island will be trained and eventually deputized for wildlife protection as a stopgap measure.

“They will be trained to protect the wildlife on the island, especially if it will be proven that green sea turtles are nesting there. What data we have now was only shared to us by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They have remote sensing activities, and they told us that Lawak might be part of the migration path of the green sea turtles,” he said.

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has been with Palawan News since January 2019. She is its managing editor, overseeing and coordinating day-to-day editorial activities. Her writing interests are politics and governance, health, defense, investigative journalism, civic journalism, and the environment.