Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje has ordered the filing of criminal charges against 10 fishermen reportedly caught poaching off Apo Reef Natural Park in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro and the seizure of all equipment used by the poachers.

Paje’s orders stemmed from the apprehension of the fishermen caught by a composite patrol team on Sunday (September 18) for fishing and collecting marine products using hook and line without permit. The Apo Reef is a “no-take zone”, making fishing illegal and punishable under Republic Act (RA) 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992.

“We have to convey to the public that we are serious in our fight against despoilers of our environment, especially of our coral reefs which provide habitat to a diverse species of fish and other marine mammals,” said Paje.

At the same time, he lauded Task Force MARLEN (Marine and Apo Reef Law Enforcement of Nature) for the swift capture of the alleged poachers, saying that the action was “proof of how stakeholders of the environment can work together to protect our country’s natural treasures.”

Task Force MARLEN is composed of representatives from the DENR, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and the local government of Sablayan. The task force regularly patrols the 274.69-kilometer coral reef, which is a “no take zone” and thus strictly off limits to fishers.

Arrested were a certain Rey Gesihan, Dalmacio dela Cruz, Michael Magayon, Rey Mangao, Marcial Duroy, Portacio Magramo, Rizalito Magayon, and Edrian Ramos, all of Brgy. Sta. Lucia in Sablayan; Gilbert Celino and JR Collamar of Brgy. Buenavista, also in Sablayan.

DENR-MIMAROPA Regional Technical Director Edgardo Galeon of the Protected Areas, Wildlife and Coastal Zone Management Services, who led Task Force MARLEN, said that the fishermen have been brought to the Sablayan Municipal Police Station for investigation.

Following the Paje’s orders, Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) Daniel Estarija reported that the boats and fishing paraphernalia were seized and placed under the custody of the DENR station in Apo Reef Island pending the outcome of the investigation and charges filed with the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. Meanwhile, the poachers’ fish catch would be distributed to penal and charitable institutions to avoid decay and wastage.

The Apo Reef Natural Park is the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world, next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the largest one in the country. It is a famous diving spot famous for the diversity of its coral reefs, whose condition has improved over the years, and marine animals which include the pawikan (sea turtle), manta and eagle rays, sharks, and even transients such as sperm whales and dolphins.

It is on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The NIPAS Act specifically prohibits the use of motorized equipment as well as hunting, destroying, disturbing or mere possession of any plants or animals or products derived from protected areas without permit from the Protected Area Management Board or PAMB. Such acts are punishable from five to five hundred thousand pesos, as well as imprisonment from one to six years.