The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) decried the poaching of rare corals and critically endangered marine turtles by Vietnamese nationals who were caught recently by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in the Sulu waters in Mindanao.

The 12 Vietnamese nationals were on board a Malaysian-registered fishing vessel with body number SBF 48 when apprehended on April 22 off Pangutaran Island in Sulu. The vessel was found to be loaded with five bundles of black corals (Antipatharia), 87 pieces of hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), and around 600 kilograms of hammerhead fish, lapu-lapu (grouper) and squid.

“This is a clear violation of international and local laws on wildlife, especially since most of the species caught are considered endangered, and they were killed or collected in the Sulu Sea Marine Ecoregion (SSME), which is a protected area,” said DENR Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje.

He added that with the Philippines considered as among the world’s biodiversity hotspots, “It is important that those caught be punished accordingly to send a strong signal that we are serious in protecting our marine resources.”

The poachers are currently detained at the provincial jail in Tawi-Tawi. They have been charged by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) for violating provisions of Republic Act No. 8550, also known as the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998.

The DENR has likewise filed supplemental charges for violations of Republic Act No. 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.

Nilo Ramoso Jr., project leader of the Pawikan Conservation Project (PCP) of the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), and who had joined a team from the DENR and BFAR, reported that the poachers used an improvised lighting system to hunt at night in areas where the turtles were otherwise feeding or living undisturbed. This also enabled them to catch the other marine species and handpicked the corals.

The turtles that were caught were killed by direct storage in ice, and have since been buried in Barangay Pasiagan in Bongao, Tawi-tawi.

Ramoso said that 59 of the 87 turtles were female adults, and could have produced about 42,775 eggs during the nesting season. “The poaching and killing reduced the numbers of key players in the marine environment. Turtles are considered as a major nutrient transporter and hasten the conversion of one resource to the benefit of many living marine wildlife,” he lamented.

The SSME is part of the Coral Triangle, which is noted as the world’s center of coral and reef-fish diversity. It encompasses Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.