A pair of Sooty Terns flies overhead in Bird Islet. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Adult Red-Footed Booby resting in lighthouse. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Black-naped tern flying past the islet Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Brown Boobies, Greater Crested Terns, and Black Noddies on the islet. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Brown Booby heading out to sea. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Greater Crested Tern with catch. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Greater Crested Terns and chicks on the waterline. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
Juvenile Red-Footed Booby in the Lighthouse. Courtesy of Noel Guevara, Conservation & Wildlife Photographer
The Tubbataha seabirds are vanishing. This is what scientists are finding at the last known great seabird sanctuary in the Philippines. The number of seabirds at Tubbataha Reefs and Natural Park (TNRP) decreased by almost half in just a year, according to data from TNRP. From 41,793 in 2018, the number is now 27,721 as of May this year.
There are six resident breeding species of seabirds in the Tubbataha Reefs. They can be found in Bird Islet located in the North Atoll, as well as South Islet where a new lighthouse is being built. While these species of seabirds can be found around the world, they are experiencing a rapid decline in the Philippines -- and the ones in Tubbataha are some of the very few that exist in the country today.
A subspecies of the Black Noddy (Anous Minutus) -- Worcesteri –- can only be found in the Philippines, and specifically in Tubbataha.
“The Black Noddy that we have here is a sub species that is not found elsewhere in the world, it’s only found in the Sulu Sea. We have gone to Cagayancillo, all the way down to Tawi-Tawi, they’re no longer there,” said Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) head, Angelique Songco.
Songco added that in 2017, this Black Noddy sub species, A. M. Worcesteri, was listed under the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) for international protection. “We had it listed in the Philippines and so it’s also our obligation to protect it. We cannot allow it to vanish.”
Data records show that the A. M. Worcesteri‘s number decreased from 4,473 in 2018 to 2,072 in 2019.
The sharp decline in Tubbataha’s seabirds is attributed to the loss of trees on the islets.
Some of the birds are tree breeders, the Red-Footed Booby and the Black Noddy (A.M. Worcesteri), and their droppings killed the trees because of overfertilization.
“More than 10 years ago, the Red-Footed Booby overtook the islet, they are tree breeders so they sat on the trees and overfertilzed them hanggang sa namatay lahat ng trees, that’s in a matter of over 10 years.”
“So now there’s another tree breeding species that is protected, it’s called the Black Noddy which now has no more nesting habitats because there are no more trees, no nesting materials, so the population of both those tree breeding species has gone down dramatically,” said Songco.
The Tubbataha Management Office is now experimenting on ways to increase the population of seabirds on Bird Islet.
They recently brought some nesting materials like leaves and planted trees to house the birds.
“Now what we are doing is constructing what you call apartments for the birds to use as roosts. And then they build their nests there, but since there are no more trees, wala na silang panggawa ng nests. So we had to bring nesting materials. It's not been done in the world yet. We cannot just let them disappear and so we are experimenting right now, and hope it works rather than not do anything,” explained Songco.
Another reason for the disappearance of the seabirds is the disturbance caused by the ongoing construction of a new lighthouse on South Islet. The new lighthouse, which is replacing an old one, started construction last March and is due for completion in July.
TMO estimates that there are about 2,000 passing vessels a year in the Sulu Sea and the weather conditions, like sudden storms, can sometimes be hazardous.
“We need signs that say there is an islet. The lighthouse is an aid to navigation. Without the aid to navigation, the possibility of groundings increase. When there are groundings, there is a chance for an oil spill and that’s going to kill us all really fast. We have spent such a long time to protect this area, and in a matter of one grounding, we may lose it all,” said Songco.
The move to provide trees and nesting materials is supported by Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. (PSFI), who is funding many of the research work done about Tubbataha.
Marvi Trudeau, program manager of PSFI based in Palawan, stressed the importance of providing the numbers.
“How will you know if what you are doing is right if you cannot measure what you are protecting? So we need to do a baseline and we have to check that every year, like what is happening to the seabirds,” said Trudeau.
“I’m happy to see and notice the newly hatched chicks, there’s a lot of them now and it looks like we are taking care and sustaining the birds of Tubbataha,” she added.
Trudeau also said that the seabirds, which only eat fish are an important part of Tubbataha’s ecosystem.
The seabirds are a biological indicator of the health of the reef said Songco. “They live their entire lives in the open ocean. If they have no food, they won’t be there. Nabubuhay sila because they have food all around but again the habitat where they live is another important factor.”
Songco also cited the fact that the presence of humans affects the survival of the seabirds. “They only live in pelagic islands and islets and most of the humans are living there, they have cats and rats (which) usually eat the eggs. In some islands, the cats climb the trees so they end up eating the tree breeders. There are very few areas where there is no human habitation, so (the birds) really don’t have a lot of places to transfer. If there are no more trees in Bird Islet and South Islet, where will they go? We have to think of how to compensate for that loss.”
The UNESCO has listed Tubbataha as a World Heritage Site for its unique marine biodiversity. It is home to more than 600 species of fish and more than 300 species of corals -- approximately half of all coral species in the world. It is also an important habitat for internationally threatened and endangered marine species, such as turtles and sharks.
While there are many other reef systems around the world, Trudeau said that Tubbataha is among the few that have remained healthy despite global warming. He believes this is a testament to the health of the Tubbataha ecosystem, something that all stakeholders must guard carefully and conscientiously, through research, conservation and law enforcement efforts. “Tubbataha is not only a jewel for the Philippines, it’s a jewel for the world.”