Bureau of Customs seizes marine species worth P35 million

- Evelyn Macairan () - May 12, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -  Customs officials seized some P35-million worth of endangered marine species, including sea turtles, which were about to be smuggled out of the country.

Officials yesterday revealed the illegal shipment included 20 sea turtles (pawikan), black corals (antipatharia) and various seashells such as the helmet shell, squamosa and the tridacna that were all declared endangered.

Bureau of Customs deputy commissioner Horacio Suansing said the pawikans, the smallest of which measured eight inches and the largest 33 inches, were covered with old newspapers and were found concealed at the back of a 20-foot container van shipped from Cotabato City and delivered to the South Harbor in Manila.

Customs officials and representatives from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) initially suspected the container vans were filled with black corals and seashells. Upon inspection, they discovered the green sea turtles stuffed inside cardboard boxes at the rear of the container van.

“There is a global prohibition for the collection and harvesting of black coral as it is listed in the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as threatened and endangered,” Suansing said.

Customs enforcement and security service director Nestorio Gualberto said they received information last April 29 of a shipment of endangered species from Cotabato going to the Eva Macapagal Terminal at the South Harbor on May 1.

A certain Exequiel Navarro, whose name appeared in the bill of lading, reportedly misdeclared the contraband as rubber.

Gualberto said they are looking into the possibility that Navarro could have been a courier of a syndicate based in Mindanao that is behind the smuggling of endangered marine species.

“There is a possibility that some of these species were from the Mangsee Island, which is part of Palawan province but is close to Sulu,” Gualberto said.

BFAR Regulatory and Quarantine Division chief Ani Vitug said there is a law prohibiting the sale and exportation of certain marine species that have been listed as globally endangered.

Under section 97 of Republic Act 8550 or the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, the taking or gathering of endangered species is prohibited.

“In the case of the black coral it is listed under the appendix of CITES and the punishment could be 12 years and the fines can run up to millions…this is the first time that we have discovered this much quantity of black corals,” Vitug said.

Vitug explained the country’s coral reefs are the most life producing of all ecosystems on earth, harboring 25 percent of all marine species that include fish and invertebrates.

“They deliver ecosystem services to fisheries, food security, employment, tourism, pharmaceutical research and coastline protection,” she added.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the economic cost over a 25-year period of destroying one kilometer of coral reef is between $137,000 and $1.2 million.

“We have to track the syndicate (behind the smuggling) because the local people would not have engaged in such activities if there were no orders from abroad. They might have connived with other people based abroad,” Vitug said.

She said the smugglers were brave enough to sneak two container vans full of marine species out of the country and load them onto a commercial vessel.

“Maybe they thought that they would not be apprehended. It was a good thing that the BOC received a tip, but in the ordinary course of business it would have been difficult to detect them because many cargo are loaded inside a ship,” she said.

While the shipment came from the port in Cotabato, Vitug clarified it is not certain if the species were taken from there.

“There is a possibility that they were just consolidated in Cotabato,” she said.

Authorities said the marine species are used primarily as decorative items.

The black corals, which serve as food for some organisms within the coral reefs and as shelter homes of other organisms, can be made into ornaments or jewelry. 

The BOC said the illegal trade in black corals is being fueled by the demand of the multi-billion dollar marine ornamental industry for exotic decorative species and the increasing popularity of coral-accented jewelry and fashion accessories.

The sea turtles, on the other hand, could be eaten and in some countries are considered an aphrodisiac. Their shells are also prized as jewelry and fashion accessories.

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