An adult female brown booby with a plastic cup remnant around its neck and beak. (Photo by TRNP marine park ranger Segundo Conales)

Plastics pollution of the marine environment is threatening one of the country’s most important marine protected area – the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP).

Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) park area superintendent (PASu) Angelique Songco expressed alarm on Tuesday that the amount of plastic waste being drifted by the sea current into the marine park has been increasing in volume and frequency on an annual basis, and is likely to intensify “unless people drastically change their behavior in using plastics”.

“It’s a global problem now na kami walang magawa because they come from outside our boundaries, hindi naman nanggagaling sa atin. It’s a major battle these days, not only here, but all over the world. ‘Yon na nga mga issues ngayon na hindi na natin kayang kolektahin ang mga plastic na ‘yan because in micro sizes na sila, they have already entered our food chain,” she said.

(It’s a global problem now that we can’t do anything about because they come from outside our boundaries, not from here. It’s a major battle these days, not only here, but all over the world. The issue right now is we cannot collect these plastics because they’ve turned into micro sizes, they have already entered our food chain.)

Tubbataha park rangers are shown in this file photo while removing a huge pile of ropes, fishing nets, plastic bottles, and other garbage chunks on the water surface of the marine park. (Photo courtesy of TRNP)

Showing Palawan News a recent photo of a pile of trash that was carried into the channel between the North and South atolls, Songco said sometimes marine park rangers (MPRs) who help collect them are already seeing “tarballs”.

She explained that tarballs are concentrated oil blobs that accumulate and float at sea from solid waste materials.

“Meron na siyang tar at minsan may nakikita na silang tarballs na malalaki na tapos pagdating ng hapon ay malulusaw na. Those are tarballs, in fact, we have pictures of birds na naapektuhan. I don’t know kung sapat ba ang efforts natin tungkol dito,” she said.

(There is already tar and sometimes they can see tarballs that are big and will only disappear late in the afternoon. Those are tarballs, in fact, we have pictures of birds that have been affected. I don’t know if we’re doing enough regarding this.)

Sharks, birds affected

Songco said they have documented an adult black noddy caught in straw and an adult female brown booby with a plastic cup raveled on its neck and in its beak, a shark with a rope entangled around its body and gills, and turtles swimming with floating plastic bags around them.

“The shark has been swimming around for two years [with that rope,] how will it grow? Tignan mo itong bird na may plastic sa loob ng beak niya at nakapalibot sa leeg niya ang plastic cup at kagat niya, how is it going to eat? (Look at this board with a plastic cup caught inside its beak, biting it, how is it going to eat?)” she asked.

Songco said every time park rangers would try to help the birds, they will feel agitated to attack.

The worst thing, she stated, is that piles of waste debris often wash ashore on the islets that serve as rookeries for 100 species of seabirds some of which are red-footed booby, brown booby, sooty tern, black noddy, great-crested tern, and brown noddy.

The shark was recorded in 2016 with the rope, and again in 2017, but Songco said no one can get close to it.

“How do you get close to a shark to help it? You can’t,” she asked.

“Marami nang namamatay na birds due to entanglement. Dadalhin niya sa islet ang rope, mamamatay na siya kasi di na makakain dahil nakatali siya (A lot of birds had died due to entanglement. It will bring ropes to the islet and it will die there because it cannot feed),” Songco pointed out.

An adult black noddy rendered helpless on the sand by a straw that’s tied around its body. (Photo by TRNP marine park ranger Segundo Conales)

Waves of garbage

Songco said park rangers have noted that water bottles, wrappers of fabric softeners like Downy, and noodle plastic packaging from Malaysia and Indonesia top the list of the waste materials they collect.

But the most notable are those from the fishing industry such as ropes and nets either discarded or accidentally dropped by large fishing boats that pass through the Sulu Sea.

“Marami ‘yan kasi ang karamihan ng debris na nakukuha galing sa fishing. ‘Yang mga tali sa sharks, fishing ‘yan galing. And there’s also a study that most debris… they’re from fishing because they discard. If mahulog, it’s too much effort for them na habulin pa nila. They wrap animals and they kill them,” she said.

“There’s a lot because most of the debris is from fishing. The rope around the shark is from fishing. And there’s also a study that most debris… they’re from fishing because they discard. If accidentally discarded, it’s too much effort to go after them.)

In 2017, marine park rangers were able to collect a total of 1,678 kilos of garbage that were washed ashore, and the top three waste materials were ropes and nets, rigid plastic items such as lighters, toothbrushes, and combs, and rubbers.

The total garbage collected in 2018, went down to 537.80 kilos, but Songco said “just the same”, the presence is already “pervasive” in Tubbataha.

She said in 2001, there was a season for garbage in the marine park, but now, it is there all the time.

“When I arrived here, there’s only a season for garbage being drifted. Now, it’s no longer seasonal, all year, it’s there… They used to be brought by the currents when there’s a northeast monsoon, from the south. This means it’s already ubiquitous, it’s already pervasive, we have no more way out of them,” Songco further said.

Lessen plastic consumption

To ease the situation “a little”, she said, the collection of garbage is already included in the terms of reference of the park rangers who stay in the Tubbataha for two-three months.

She said they also do targeted surface water clean-ups and go to the islets to pick the trash, averaging around 15.37 kilos every two months.

Divers are always briefed about the ban in bringing plastic bottles and to help pick up trash during their visit.

This is something they do not miss to say during their briefing, and Songco said they have been cooperative ever since.

But she emphasized that these efforts are not enough.

“We must care more. We must make a big deal out of it kasi ngayon hindi siya big deal. Sige lang tayong pulot, sige lang tayong pulot, walang kampanya na bawasan mo naman ‘yong pinupulot mo (… because now it’s not a big deal. We pick and pick trash, but there’s no campaign to reduce what trash we’re picking),” she said.

Songco said even the question, “What people can do to help the marine environment against plastics?” is difficult to answer since it is now a global issue.

In Palawan, people should be “mindful” to lessen the consumption of plastics in their everyday life.

She said there should be more campaigns against the use of plastic materials and about options that people can select from to help the environment.

“If you’re going to the market, use recycled plastics made into market bags. I mean, people are not aware of the options so they won’t use plastic material, and this should be part of the policy of the local government,” she said.

Local governments, she added, should no longer aimlessly wander about passing anti-plastic ordinances that will help lessen the problem.

“If the Tubbataha is no longer pristine, who will go there?” she asked.