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Cebu launches crackdown on illegal seashell trade

In Cebu – home to one of the most diverse concentrations of seashells in the world – local authorities have seized truckloads of endangered seashells that were meant to be sold and shipped abroad over the last two months. In the latest in a series of raids on illegal seashell traders, local authorities seized around P2 million worth of endangered seashells and other species from the residential compound of 59-year-old Kalali Daigal Sabteri last April 27. The confiscated items include nine sacks of Tridacna shells, three boxes of murex shells, three sacks of sponges, a box of sea corals, and four baby sharks, Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) provincial chief Ricky Neron told GMA News Online in a telephone interview. All species of Tridacna or giant clams are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Philippines is a signatory to the treaty. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has classified at least one murex species under the “lower risk" and “near threatened" category.
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Overharvesting, habitat destruction, and pollution continue to pose threats to Philippine seashells, according to a 2003 study by marine biologist Adonis Floren. In this slide show, GMA News Online presents some of the seashell species prohibited or regulated by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) The series of raids was mandated by the Cebu Provincial Anti-Illegal Fishing Task Force, which was formed through a provincial executive order to curb illegal marine activities in Cebu. So far, the group has made five raids and more are planned, highlighting the seriousness of the problem on illegal possession and trade of endangered seashells in the island. Selling seashells Located in the Visayan Sea – one of the biggest and most productive fishing grounds in the Philippines – Cebu has a decades-long history of large-scale seashell trading, according to a 2003 study. (See box)
Thriving seashell trade leaves poor behind
Tourists are flocking to Cebu not only for its beaches but also for its thriving seashell industry, according to a 2003 study by marine biologist Adonis Floren. “Souvenir shops are scattered all over the island, selling shells and shell by-products," Floren said in his study entitled “The Philippine Shell Industry with Special Focus on Mactan, Cebu." Produced for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the study was supported by the United States Agency for International Development. Floren noted that many of the export-oriented seashell stalls are found in Barangay Punta Engaño – the site of four of the five raids conducted by the Cebu Provincial Anti-Illegal Fishing Task Force to curb illegal marine activities in the province. (Read more)
An environment advocate and writer based in Manila, Anna Oposa, raised the alarm on what she called the “plunder of Philippine marine life" in several letters to government agencies and the media early this year. In particular, she brought to the attention of authorities the trading activities of the Cebu-based Orcullo Enterprises, which allegedly ships endangered species to the US-based company Shell Horizons Inc. Oposa, the daughter of prominent environment lawyer and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Antonio Oposa Jr., asserted in her letters that Shell Horizons violates local and international laws on the possession and trade of marine resources. She said one of the species that Shell Horizons sells is the Tridacna gigas, which is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. “The company Shell Horizons appears to be collecting, exporting, and selling seashells, corals, giant clams, and other marine species from the Philippines," Oposa wrote in her letter to Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) assistant director Benjamin Tabios Jr. dated April 11. Oposa cited a provision in the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 that does not allow “any person or corporation to gather, possess, sell, or export ordinary, precious, and semi-precious corals, whether raw or in processed form, except for scientific or research purposes." The Fisheries Code also prohibits the collection of rare, threatened, or endangered species, including some varieties of seashells listed in the CITES and banned by the government. Orcullo: ‘That’s a lie’ On its website, Shell Horizons describes itself as America’s “largest wholesaler of quality seashells and ocean products," many of which are found in the Philippines, such as capiz shells. Previously, the company’s contact information said Shell Horizons “is located in Clearwater, Florida, USA, and on the islands of Bahamas and the Philippines." Shortly after Oposa released her letters and media statement in late April, however, the website replaced the Philippines with “Indo-Pacific Islands."
Weeks after Oposa raised the alarm on Shell Horizons' allegedly illegal activities, the company changed a portion of its contact information. (Screen grabs from Shell Horizons website)
Oposa said she has written to Shell Horizons about her concerns but has yet to receive a reply. Requests for comment from Shell Horizons for this story went unanswered. According to the CIDG’S Neron, initial findings on the latest raid in April led investigators to Orcullo Enterprises as the exporter of the seized items. Without disclosing his sources of information due to the ongoing investigation, Neron added that initial leads point to Sabteri, whose house contained the seized items, as a supplier of Orcullo. Priscillo Orcullo, president of Orcullo Enterprises, confirmed that his company exports seashells to Shell Horizons but denied trading endangered marine species. “That’s a lie," Orcullo said in a telephone interview with GMA News Online. He said stringent regulations, both in the Philippines and in the United States, prevent exporters from shipping endangered marine species. “I never load banned items to the United States," the company president asserted. Orcullo admitted exporting rare marine species when it was still allowed in the 1970s, but said he stopped the trade when the government banned the practice. He also denied keeping close ties with local suppliers whose houses were raided. He described Lourdes Ibag – the barangay captain of Punta Engaño who was the subject of the first task-force raid in March – only as a friend and as a colleague in the shell exporting industry. As for Sabteri, the subject of the latest raid in April, Orcullo said, “I only know that he is one of the big exporters here." Shipments to Shell Horizons In her letter to BFAR’s Tabios, Oposa said two bills of lading found online trace two shipments to Shell Horizons from the Orcullo Enterprises based in Burgos St. Mandaue City, Cebu. One of them is a 5,808-kilogram shipment dated September 21, 2008 while a more recent entry dated September 28, 2009 shows another shipment weighing 6,156 kg. “To do this legally, Shell Horizons would need several permits from the local government units, and national government agencies," added Oposa. “In this regard, may I respectfully request your good Offices for information on the permits given to Shell Horizons Inc., if any?" Asked to comment on May 12, over a month after the letter was sent, a staff member of Tabios told GMA News Online that the BFAR official has yet to reply to Oposa’s query. Oposa also wrote letters to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and one of its attached agencies, the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB). In response, PAWB director Theresa Mundita Lim referred Oposa back to BFAR. Lawyer Annaliza Vitug, chief of BFAR’s Fisheries Regulatory and Quarantine Division, said that aside from Oposa, three other persons including a foreigner have written to BFAR regarding the activities of Shell Horizons. Vitug told GMA News Online that she has alerted the BFAR regional office in Cebu about the issue but the national office has yet to receive a reply, most likely due to the ongoing investigation. Violation of international laws In her letter to BFAR, Oposa said Shell Horizons faces possible violations of international laws including the Lacey Act, a United States law that prohibits “trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold." So far, two foreigners have been convicted in US courts for smuggling marine species from the Philippines in violation of the Lacey Act. In 1999, Peter Leventis of Florida was convicted along with his company Greek Island Imports for smuggling “internationally protected corals and seashells" from the Philippines to the United States, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported on its website. More recently, German national Gunther Wenzek pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling 40 tons of exotic corals from the Philippines into the US in 2009. Marlito Nolledo Guidote II, who was then a project adviser for the United States Agency for International Development, described Wenzek’s charge and guilty plea as a landmark case because the smuggler was known to have showcased Philippine corals abroad. The Philippines belongs to the Coral Triangle along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Covering an area of six million square kilometers, this is considered the global center of marine biodiversity that holds 76 percent of the earth’s coral species and 58 percent of tropical marine mollusk species, which include seashells. Understaffed ports BFAR’s Vitug said endangered seashells and other marine species may have slipped through the country’s secondary or inter-island ports because of an understaffed quarantine force, brought about by the reorganization of the bureau under the Fisheries Code in 1998. She said the Department of Budget and Management has not approved the hiring of new staff to fill the vacancies in the regional offices for quarantine officers, whose tasks include the screening of prohibited cargo. “Lumalakas ang loob ng [illegal traders] kasi alam nila na undermanned kami," Vitug said. Just this month, authorities foiled what Vitug described as the “boldest attempt" to smuggle endangered marine species out of the Philippines so far. On May 11, Bureau of Customs officials confiscated two 20-foot container vans loaded with stuffed marine turtles, black corals, and seashells, according to a report on GMA News TV’s “State of the Nation." Vitug said the cargo – which included endangered shell species such as the Tridacna squamosa and helmet shells – came from Cotabato and arrived in Manila aboard a Super Ferry ship early this month. “Malakas ang loob ng kumuha nito kasi isinakay sa cargo vessel," she noted. Boxed, sealed, and packed inside the container vans, the cargo was allegedly misdeclared as rubber on the ship’s manifest, according to Vitug. She said an informant tipped off authorities about the vessel that carried the endangered species. In many other cases, Vitug said illegal shipments that pass the screening at secondary ports make their way to international ports, from which they are brought to other parts of the world. The marine species seized in Manila were supposed to be brought to China and Europe, according to the “State of the Nation" report. How do these shipments pass the stringent screening at international ports? “They have a way of packaging it na hindi made-detect sa X-ray machine or sa airport," Vitug, who posed as a buyer of endangered seashells in Cebu in 2009, quoted an illegal trader as saying. Disrupting marine food chains Vitug expressed concern that the illegal trading in seashell is done “in broad daylight" in residential areas in Cebu. She noted that the people behind illegal seashell trading in the province were also the ones who peddled endangered marine species before the Fisheries Code banned the practice. “Bakit hindi pino-prohibit ng local government eh alam nilang bawal ‘yon?" she said. The unabated collection and smuggling of seashells from the Philippines severely disrupts life cycles in the marine ecosystem, said BFAR senior marine biologist Ludivina Labe in an e-mail interview with GMA News Online. “Seashells are among the major players in this web of life," said Labe. She explained that seashells provide food, shelter, and protection from predators to other reef inhabitants. “[The] decimation or loss of seashell [populations] … would result in ecological imbalance," she said. Labe warned that the illegal trade in seashells will have adverse effects of “exponential" proportions to other species that depend on the marine food chain. “The population that will bear the brunt of it all is the primary consumers – humans," she said. – with reports from Karlitos Brian Decena and Suzette Dalumpines/YA, GMA News