From the sky, Tawi-Tawi’s white sand-rimmed islands are majestic sights as one approaches for landing at the Sanga-Sanga airport in the southern Philippines island province’s capital town of Bongao.

These become even more enthralling when seen underneath the sea floor where marine life teems around the 300-plus islands and islets of Tawi-Tawi.

Tawi-Tawi's famed Bongao peak is surrounded with islands teeming with pristine corals and wild and endemic marine life.Pic: Edwin Espejo

As a first time visitor, Tawi-Tawi quickly and completely demolished my perception of it as a wild, sparsely inhabited province.

Islam in the Philippines, after all, took its roots in Simunul, an island south of Bongao and a mere 30-minute ride by speed boat.  To this day, the same columns of the first mosque ever built in the Philippine are still standing in Simunul, its flat terrain is clearly visible from our hotel window even at dusk.  The 600-year-old mosque is a sacred site for all Muslims in the country.

Far from being desolate, awi-Tawi is bustling with agricultural trading and export of live marine products that is now fast becoming its major produce apart from what province is known for – seaweed culture.

Boon
On a daily basis, an average of 1.3 tons of live marine products – mostly groupers (lapu-lapu) and lobsters – are flown out of Sanga-Sanga airport, a former military airstrip built by the Japanese occupational army during World War II.

These live marine products are sold to Manila’s finest restaurants.  Some end up in posh diners in Hong Kong where a kilo of a live blue-spotted red grouper (called suno in local dialect) is fetching up to HK$1,250 (P7,000).  Local prices of live groupers starts at P800 for the green groupers to up to P1,500 for the suno (US$20-35).  Giant lobsters weighing at least 2 kilos are sold at P1,500 per kilo.  All these are at bodega (warehouses) prices.  Traders however decline to reveal their buying prices from local fishermen.  Live fish traders line up at the narrow wharf ramp where they pitch aquariums in makeshift warehouses.

Live fish trading is giving Tawi-Tawi a boon.Pic by Edwin Espejo

When the Bongao airport was extended and expanded in 2009, daily flights increased traffic and trade between Bongao and Zamboanga.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, Cebu Pacific, the lone carrier now flying to Bongao, had to fly a quick turnaround additional flight from Zamboanga as demand for more cargo space increased. 

Styrofoam boxes wrapped in plastic cellophane are quickly loaded.

Bongao Mayor Jasper Que said live fish trading has brought in investors from Manila who have set up halfway aquariums and concrete tanks complete with backup generators.

Que said the island’s 3MW power supply coming from a power barge and a diesel plant is not enough for Bongao’s electricity needs.  Aquariums need to be aerated 24/7 to acclimatize the fish while waiting for transit.

While live fish trading is generating income for fishermen and ancillary workers, Bongao is yet to cash in on the lucrative trade.

The 32-year-old mayor says, they collect a mere P5 (US$0.11) per styro box as local tax.

“We are looking at increasing local tax in the live fish trade.  But we will have to do it slowly,” Mayor Que said.

Flipside
For USAID-funded ECOFISH project officer Geronimo Silvestre, however, the downside of live fish trading means widespread destruction of Tawi-Tawi’s coral reefs and marine biodiversity.

ECOFISH stands for Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries, a 5-year extension of the pioneering FISH (Fisheries Improved for Sustainable Harvest) project.

Silvestre said increased demand for live fish as well as illegal trade of endangered marine products is threatening Tawi-Tawi’s pristine and largely intact coral reefs.

He fears the traditional way of catching live fish using bamboo traps called bubo could no longer cope up with the increasing volume of market demands.

Some fishermen, in their haste to earn quick money, resort to cyanide fishing.  While this method merely stuns the fish by squirting a small amount of the toxic chemical, it leaves an indelible carbon print by killing the corals and sponges where these highly valued groupers dwell.

“There is this issue of feeding the larvae of suno,” Silvestre said.  While green groupers have been artificially propagated through hatchery, fisheries experts are yet to make breakthroughs in successfully breeding the more expensive suno in hatchery conditions.

Besides, fish cages also contribute to the pollution. 

For ECOFISH, Tawi-Tawi’s pristine coastline and seawater are still paramount.

More concerns
Cyanide fishing is not the only concern for ECOFISH and the local government units.

Tawi-Tawi Gov. Nurbert Sahali said poaching and illegal wildlife trade, as well as dynamite fishing, are also major problems as the province tries to face the negative tradeoffs of its rapid development.

“Dynamite and cyanide fishing are still rampant,” Gov. Sahali said.

But if anything, the governor said, “LGUs are now advocating the preservation of marine resources.”

Sahali and Silvestre are both agreed they have to intensify information and education campaign to raise the level of environmental awareness of the townsfolk in Tawi-Tawi. 

But Silvestre also said a campaign should also be launched from the demand side.

“Sooner or later, the catch will keep going down if we do not take up measures to protect our marine resources,” he said, while admitting illegal fishing method “is very difficult to stop.”

Tawi-Tawi is home to the country’s last remaining virgin coral reef formation.  

It lies in the northern side of the Coral Triangle, home to the world’s more than 600 endemic marine species and where six of the world’s seven giant turtles are found.

Tawi-Tawi’s southernmost town is even called Turtle Islands, known to be permanent home of these gentle oceangoing, hard-shelled, cold-blooded denizens of the beaches.

Race against time
On May 28, Gov. Sahali led the unveiling of the nationwide 700 Daloy project with Tawi-Tawi as its pilot area.

Project Daloy is a public-private partnership initiated by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the US$15-million five-year Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (ECOFISH) project.

The joint BFAR-USAID undertaking has partnered with the PNP-MG, SMART Communications Inc and the Provincial Government of Tawi-Tawi.

SMART donated 5 satellite phones and 95 mobile phone units and provided the mobile platform hotline (70032569) where the public can pass “critical information relating to marine environment protection.”

The mobile hotline will be primarily manned by the Philippine National Police Maritime Group and will use the syntax “PNPMG(space)FEEDBACK(space)your message”.

The Tawi-Tawi governor said his government is buoyed by the support given to the preservation and protection of the province’s rich marine resources.

A bill declaring Tawi-Tawi as turtle sanctuary after numerous cases of poaching were recorded in the islands, most of them by Chinese fishermen, is still pending at the House of Representatives where Gov. Sahali’s elder sister, Rep. Ruby Sahali, is a member representing the province’s lone congressional district.

The governor will not have time on his side if they fail in this endeavor.