Underwatertimes.com News Service - November 9, 2006 18:18 EST

President Gloria Arroyo has enacted a new national conservation policy for the Philippines to protect the archipelagic country's unique and rich nature, with initial focus on the heart of Southeast Asia's Coral Triangle.

"It is the policy of the state to protect, conserve and sustainable use biological diversity to ensure and secure the well-being of present and future generations of Filipinos," said an Executive Order signed by Arroyo at a Nov. 8 ceremony on Verde Island in Batangas City.

The order applies to all of the natural wealth of the Philippines, and specifies initial steps to create marine protected areas in the Verde Passage, known as the "centre of the centre" of the world's most plentiful shore fish region located at the apex of the Coral Triangle that includes the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

A 2004 study by Old Dominion University and the Smithsonian Institute in collaboration with Conservation International (CI) documented a peak in concentration of marine biodiversity in the Verde Passage between the Philippines provinces of Batangas and Mindoro.

The Verde Passage is part of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape Project launched by CI in 2005 to conserve the full range of biodiversity in the region that is home to threatened species including hawksbill, olive ridley and green sea turtles; humphead wrasses; giant groupers, and giant clams.

President Arroyo called the Verde Passage a "critical marine corridor" that is vital to marine-based tourism, transportation and international shipping, and she praised CI and its partners in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape Project – First Philippine Conservation Inc., First Gen Corporation, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the local governments of Batangas and Mindoro provinces – for their efforts to protect the valuable marine ecosystems for the well-being of the nation and its people.

"The challenge to all of us is how to keep the balance so that we protect our biodiversity and at the same time gain from it, and in the process attain sustainable development," she said.

Peter Seligmann, the chairman and CEO of Conservation International, said the president's Executive Order exemplified a new global awareness of nature's vital role in economic development. Other developing nations focusing on conservation as a strategic policy include Madagascar, Costa Rica and Liberia.

"President Arroyo has taken a visionary step by committing her government to protect the nation's natural wealth for the benefit of the Filipino people, now and in the future," Seligmann said. "More and more, progressive leaders are recognizing that a healthy environment is the foundation for stable, productive societies that can develop in a sustainable manner."

The 2004 study by Kent Carpenter, and Victor Springer identified the central Philippines as the "center of the center" of the world's marine shore fish diversity, with the world's highest concentration of marine species – including fish, shrimp, crabs, seaweeds, corals sea turtles, sea snakes and others.

"Several studies confirm that the central Philippines region, from Luzon to Mindanao, has more marine species per unit area than any other place on the planet," said Kent Carpenter, CI's Global Marine Species Assessment coordinator and biology professor at Old Dominion University. . "This area can be considered the marine counterpart to the Amazon River Basin. Unfortunately, the Philippines are also documented as having the highest level of threats to marine environments due to human interaction. It therefore is very timely that President Arroyo is taking this action, and that organizations such as CI and their partners focus effort to preserve the world's most unique concentration of marine biodiversity."