For them, the seizures merely highlighted the rampant illegal marine trade in the country.
Customs officials said they seized the latest contraband in the ports of Cebu City and Manila after receiving tips about ‘misdeclared goods’ being transported from the southern Philippines.
The shipment in Manila was declared as rubber, while the black corals in Cebu were declared as scrap metal. The two shipments were estimated to be worth 35 million pesos (813,000 dollars).
Scientists said the poaching ravaged an estimated 7,000 hectares of reef complex in the southern Philippines where the corals and sea turtles were taken.
Jose Ma Lorenzo Tan, chief executive officer of the World Wildlife Fund-Philippines, said the illegal trade of endangered corals and marine species has thrived for 40 years.
‘The confiscated hauls were merely symptomatic of what has been happening throughout the country for the last four decades, essentially, the illegal, unregulated and oftentimes unreported extraction of marine wealth,’ he told the German Press Agency dpa.
The Philippines is one of six countries that make up the so-called Coral Triangle, also known as the Amazon of the Seas, which has the highest coral diversity in the world. The region also hosts more than 3,000 species of fish.
Tan, a dive master and a wildlife photographer, said a study conducted by top marine scientists showed that just 1 per cent of the 25,000 square kilometres of coral reefs in the Philippines is in pristine shape.
‘The greater majority, close to 60 per cent, are in very poor shape,’ he lamented.
Following the recent seizures, Senator Loren Legarda urged law enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue smugglers and poachers.
‘It is lamentable that a nation like ours which is blessed with rich biodiversity has been included in one of world’s top biodiversity hotspots largely because of these acts that destroy our natural resources,’ she said.
Fernando Hicap, chairman of Pamalakaya fishermen’s organization, also urged the government to increase penalties against those who plunder the environment, noting that even large-scale poachers are subject to only small fines and short jail sentences.
‘While the law bans the gathering and selling of corals, the punishment for violators is very light, with imprisonment of six months to two years and a fine of between 2,000 pesos (46 dollars) and 20,000 pesos,’ he said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda called for a boycott of jewellery made from black corals.
‘We call on consumers the world over to make a similar commitment to saving biodiversity of our seas by refusing to buy black coral items,’ he said.
Several people on social networking sites expressed support for a boycott and urged stricter law enforcement.
Mundita Lim, chief of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, noted the Philippines was at the centre of an international network of smugglers and poachers exploiting marine resources in South-East Asia.
But she admitted that the government does not have the resources to address the problem. She said the bureau’s coastal marine office is a two-person affair, while her office’s annual budget is only 400 million pesos.
With a porous coastline longer than that of the United States, Tan said the problem of the illegal marine trade could not be solved by just enforcing the laws and hauling poachers to court or jailing them.
He stressed the need for government to address widespread poverty, especially in the countryside, that forces many fishermen to resort to illegal harvesting of corals and other endangered species.
Tan said the work of conserving and protecting natural resources was a dynamic endeavour that requires a holistic approach.
‘It is not enough to just save the eagles or the wild water buffalos, you have to save the forest. It is not enough to save the corals or the whales, you have to save the ocean,’ he said.