Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines becomes the latest conservation partner of DENR in the protection of Philippine endangered marine life. Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines or MWWP is a non-profit, non-stock organization that aims to foster a better appreciation of the marine environment, its ecological processes and how it affects us all through information dissemination, education, campaigns, training, research, and other related activities. The organization focuses on long-lived marine animals such as dolphins, whales, dugong, sharks, rays and marine turtles: iconic species of the marine environment.

To institutionalize the partnership of PAWB and MWWP, the Memorandum of Agreement on Collaborative Project for Marine Turtles and Dugong Conservation and Protection was signed on February 23, 2012.

The Philippines is blessed by a tropical climate, islands and seas which support the greatest assemblage of marine biodiversity known today. Since 2005, marine scientists have proven twice over that our country is “the center of the center” of global marine biodiversity.

Among the thousands of Philippine species already described, the dugong (Dugong dugon) stands out as the largest and only sea-living mammal which grazes on seagrass. Fully grown dugongs span about 3 meters from snout tip to tail, yet are gentle and harmless. By breastfeeding to care for her baby, mother dugongs have been credited to inspire the myths of “dyesebel” (half-woman, half fish) tales. Or perhaps even the “syokoy” (half man, half fish) who are said to inhabit Philippine deeps…Mermaids and mermen of medieval Europe’s sailors’ sea legends.

Baby dugongs form 14 months inside their mothers’ womb before being born. Naturally, the mother dugong’s births are spaced to only once every two years. The babies depend on their mothers for milk until two years more.  The females need almost a decade to grow to baby bearing age.

Dugongs eat vegetation, mostly seagrasses. Using short hairy bristles along its characteristic disk-shaped snout, it digs away at sand and silt, forming 20-meter long feeding trenches in the seagrass beds. Adults can eat more than 30 kg a day. Such habits favor fast-growing, nitrogen rich seagrass species over fibrous, slow growers, earning dugongs the moniker, “farmers of seagrass.” This “cultivation grazing” was revealed by scientific research.

More needs to be learned about the role of dugongs in maintaining biodiversity in our rich, livelihood sustaining seagrass ecosystem. More so, ecosystem-based approaches to dugong-seagrass-human relationships are needed for the climate change challenge that all life on earth now faces.

Living in the Indian Ocean and West Pacific Ocean, the dugongs are victim to accidental death in fishing nets, and much more dangerously, hunting. Dugongs were once found throughout the Philippines. Today, Palawan hosts the most number, with much lower numbers reported from Mindanao (Zamboanga City, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, General Santos City, and Surigao City), the Visayas (Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Guimaras) and southeastern Luzon (Polillo Island, Quezon)

Dugong Conservation Efforts in the DENR

Ecological dugong research in the Philippines began in 1985, under a partnership program between the DENR and the Toba Aquarium of Japan. Aerial surveys were undertaken throughout northern Palawan simultaneous with measurements of air-seawater temperatures and characterization of dugong habitats. More importantly, in 1992, the partners jointly undertook a Palawan-wide information and education for the conservation of the dugong as well as conducted field research on the status of dugongs and their seagrass habitats.

Based on this 7-year research effort, DENR passed Administrative Order No. 55 making it illegal to harm dugongs. Thus, the dugong became the first protected marine mammal in the Philippines.

From 1992 to 1995, more than 10 dugongs had been rescued from accidental capture then released to freedom in the wild. Several calves accidentally trapped in fishing gear had also been rescued in Palawan, Antique and Zamboanga. Unfortunately, after the calves were provided with care with institutional partners, all these dugong calves died.

A higher level of protection was provided in 2004 when the dugong became classified as a “critically endangered” mammal under DENR Administrative Order No. 2004-15. As specified in the Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act of 2001, the penalty for harming the dugong was increased to 6 to 12 years imprisonment, up to 1,000,000 pesos in fines or both at the discretion of the court.

The DENR Regional Offices have been active in monitoring recent dugong mortalities. The DENR Region 11 reported three dugongs were killed in Davao Oriental last 2011. Yesterday, DENR Region 5 reported about a recently killed dugong in Daet, Camarines Norte.

The growing threats against dugong populations need to be addressed in the Philippines, including climate change. The PAWB-MWWP project is an expert-driven response targeting the reduction of dugong mortalities.

In 2007, the Philippines became a signatory in the United Nations Environment Programme/Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP/CMS) Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and Their Habitats Throughout Their Range. The DENR has been the foremost Philippine agency implementing the attached Conservation and Management Plan.

In line with the Dugong MOU, the DENR Caraga has advanced public-private conservation partnership with a Memorandum of Understanding between a civil society partner (Center for Empowerment and Resource Development, Inc.) and a Local Government Unit (the Municipal Government of Hinatuan). DENR Caraga’s work continues with the progress for the declaration of the first critical habitat for dugongs in the Philippines located in the Municipality of Hinatuan.

MWWP is a recipient of a grant from the United Nations Environment Program-Convention on Migratory Species for a project on dugongs in pursuit of the “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and their Habitats Throughout Their Range”. The project will assess and evaluate the threats to dugong population with emphasis on incidental captures, illegal takes and mortalities during fishing operations, through interview of residents in certain coastal barangays using the Standardized Dugong Catch/By-Catch Questionnaire. The results of the survey are expected to assist in developing measures to mitigate depletion in dugong populations and their habitats.(Photo courtesy of Emie T. Ramoso)