Particularly Sensitive Sea Area status for Tubbataha Reefs

Following years of preparation, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines) received an “in principle approval as a Particular Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) from the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in mid-April 2016. The endorsement is a major breakthrough in securing protection from the impacts of international shipping for the World Heritage site and a substantial step towards preventing future ship groundings.

The proposed associated protective measure will safeguard the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park as an “Area to be Avoided’ and will apply to all vessels over 150 gross tonnes shipping goods through the Sulu Sea. The Sulu Sea is a major international shipping route for transportation of goods within South East Asia. With shipping being the most cost effective mean for transporting goods, traffic is projected to grow in the coming years.

The World Heritage Committee had expressed concerns about shipping impacts at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park for several years, but the need for protection became particularly clear when a US Navy vessel run aground on the unique reef in January 2013. The associated protective measure for the PSSA surrounding the World Heritage site will now undergo a final review by IMO’s Navigation, Communication, Search and Rescue Sub-Committee (NCSR), with a final decision expected at the 71st session of the MEPC in 2017.

The recent decisions regarding Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park are the result of years of planning and preparation. The process for securing shipping protections from the IMO is lengthy and aims at ensuring all stakeholders are consulted and in agreement, thereby giving the best outcomes for the environment and the global maritime industry. Both PSSAs in Mauritania and the Philippines are explicit requests from the World Heritage Committee and since 2010; the World Heritage Centre’s Maritime Programme has been working closely with the Governments of the Philippines, Mauritania, and the IMO-Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme to secure protection for both World Heritage sites.

The World Heritage Centre undertook a first mission to the sites in 2013 and 2014 to discuss possible associated protective measures under a potential PSSA designation that would provide adequate protection for the sites’ Outstanding Universal Value; it has since provided technical and financial assistance to both countries. Once fully accepted, the PSSAs will be the first such designations in Asia and Africa.

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