- On March 1, the MT Princess Empress oil tanker sank in the Philippines, carrying 900,000 liters (237,754 gallons) of industrial fuel oil. A huge oil slick polluted local waters and prompted authorities to impose a ban on fishing that sent local communities into a tailspin.
- The wreck occurred in the Verde Island Passage, between the Philippines’ main islands of Luzon and Mindoro, an area with the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world.
- The spill cleanup activities are now finished, and life is returning to normal in many places. However, experts say the effects of the oil spill on the ecosystem could linger over the long term.
- The spill has reinvigorated calls for the Philippine Legislature to pass a law declaring the entire Verde Island Passage a marine protected area.
VERDE ISLAND, Philippines — Working together to lift an outrigger from the clear, teal water onto a white sand beach, a group of fishers had just returned home to Verde Island with their catch. A ways down the beach, other fishers sat sewing their nets or painting their boats. Out at sea, cargo vessels and ferries slowly traversed calm waters.
These ordinary activities suggested that life in the Verde Island Passage, between the Philippines’ main islands of Luzon and Mindoro, was slowly returning to normal when Mongabay visited in mid-September. An oil spill earlier this year polluted local waters and prompted authorities to impose a ban on fishing that sent local communities into a tailspin. Cleanup activities are finished and the two provinces closest to the spill, Oriental Mindoro and Batangas, have formally terminated their responses to the incident. However, experts say the effects of the oil spill on the ecosystem could linger over the long term.
Scientists have called the Verde Island Passage (VIP) the world’s “center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity,” referring to its abundance of shallow-water fish species. It has the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world, with 1,736 marine species documented in one 10-by-10-kilometer (6.2-by-6.2-mile) area, and provides food and livelihoods to about 2 million people in the surrounding communities. Covering more than 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) spanning five provinces — Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon in addition to Oriental Mindoro and Batangas — the VIP is an important navigation route for both cargo ships and ferries.
The oil spill
On Feb. 28, the MT Princess Empress oil tanker carrying 900,000 liters (nearly 238,000 gallons) of industrial fuel oil was reportedly half-submerged in the VIP off Oriental Mindoro after encountering engine trouble. It sank the following day, according to the environment department’s final situational report. The resulting oil slick would reach at least roughly 25 km by 300–500 km (15 mi by 186–310 mi), the extent aerial surveys conducted by the country’s environment department and University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute estimated on March 3.
The oil affected approximately 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of coral reefs, 9,900 hectares (24,500 acres) of mangroves and 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of seagrass in four provinces, marine scientists estimated. It also reached areas outside the VIP, including Caluya Island in Antique province, where around 16,400 l (4,332 gal) of oil washed up on 8 kilometers (5 miles) of coastline.
Cleanup operations were mobilized on land, and skimmers and spill booms were deployed to collect oil at sea. The final phase of the cleanup, completed June 16, involved a specialized vessel named Fire Opal siphoning 120,000-240,000 l (31,700-63,401 gal) of remaining oil from the vessel.
Local authorities had declared a state of calamity in 15 cities and municipalities shortly after the spill. More than 200,000 people were affected in 264 barangays (the Philippines’ smallest administrative division), according to a report from the country’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. The incident resulted in 4.9 billion pesos ($88.5 million) in lost production and damage in the agriculture and fisheries sectors, the report notes.
On the frontlines of the disaster were fisherfolk who depend on the VIP’s rich marine life. In Oriental Mindoro, the spill’s epicenter, several municipalities issued fishing bans that curtailed fishers’ incomes for up to five months.
Within a span of just 22 fishing days, the 26,719 registered fisherfolk in the affected areas lost income totaling 441 million pesos (nearly $8 million), the country’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) estimated in April.
Environmental economist Casper Agaton of the University of the Philippines Los Baños and his team conducted a study on how fisherfolk in affected Oriental Mindoro communities perceived the spill’s immediate socioeconomic effects. The researchers found effects on livelihoods, mental health, health, education, tourism, culture and recreation.
“With typhoons, you can rebuild your house; but with oil spills, all water activities have been prohibited, which resulted in a wide range of impacts to the community,” Agaton told Mongabay.
His study noted that with the prohibitions on fishing and other aquatic activities and few alternative opportunities, fishers found it difficult to sustain their families’ daily needs.
On Verde Island in the middle of the VIP, part of Batangas province, three of the six barangays reported oil sightings in their waters and on shore. Noel Lacdao, 49, a Verde Island resident who has been fishing for more than three decades, told Mongabay the disaster brought islanders’ livelihoods to a halt and cut their food supplies, even though fishing was not officially prohibited there. And things were much worse in Oriental Mindoro, where fishing was prohibited in some areas and where he grew up and has family who were heavily impacted by the incident, he said.
“Those who can help will give some to those who are in need,” Lacdao said, speaking of conditions in Oriental Mindoro at the height of the disaster. “We’re just helping each other, trying our different strategies and means [to survive].”
Cleofe Panopio, an official in San Agapito barangay on the island, told Mongabay daily food needs were difficult to sustain during the height of the disaster. Some residents tried planting vegetables and raising livestock to earn money, but without income from fishing, many people couldn’t afford to buy their products, she said.
BFAR offered assistance to affected fisherfolk in the form of food, fuel, post-harvest training and capacity building. Government cash-for-work programs paid fishers to make spill booms from natural materials to prevent the oil from reaching shorelines.
By the time of Mongabay’s visit, however, fishing had resumed and life was returning to normal.
Even so, the spill’s effects could linger.
A 2022 paper reviewing oil spill response strategies noted that spills can have a devastating effect on shoreline ecosystems, especially coral reefs and mangroves like the ones contaminated by the VIP spill. It noted that cleanups can be challenging and expensive, and that restoring shoreline ecosystems to their pre-spill condition can be difficult.
“Oil will not only cause mortality of corals, seagrasses and mangrove trees, but also threaten the long-term condition and survival of the coral colonies, seagrass and mangrove trees that survive the initial contamination,” Badi Samaniego, a University of the Philippines Los Baños marine environmental scientist, told Mongabay via email.
Samaniego said the long-term impacts of oil spills include the deterioration of habitat quality and the disruption of the delivery and quality of the ecosystem goods and services that the environment provides. However, it will take time and monitoring to reveal any lingering effects of the February spill on the VIP’s ecosystems.
Calls to protect the VIP
As an important shipping route with natural gas-fired power plants and liquified natural gas (LNG) projects on its shore in Batangas City, the VIP is vulnerable to maritime disasters. More power plants and LNG terminals are being planned, and the VIP’s ecosystems face other threats, too, including harmful fishing activities, residential and industrial pollution, careless tourism practices and coral bleaching due to climate change.
The VIP currently includes a network of 36 locally managed marine protected areas (MPAs), 24 in Batangas and 12 in Oriental Mindoro. Policymakers and environmental advocates have been clamoring for the Philippine Legislature to pass a law declaring the entire VIP an MPA at the national level in the form of a “protected seascape,” which would confer the highest level of protection and provide resources for conservation.
“Having the VIP declared as a protected area will benefit its marine habitats and resources, as well as the different stakeholders that utilize the Passage. It will establish a unified framework upon which regional and local management plans may be hinged,” Samaniego said.
A Senate bill proposed in 2022 aims to do just that, but it is still pending.
Since the MT Princess Empress oil spill, calls to designate the VIP an MPA have grown louder. Proponents include the Philippines’ environment secretary, Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, and the five provinces hosting the VIP. In March, Oriental Mindoro’s governor went so far as to suggest limiting the use of the VIP to passenger and fishing vessels.
“This [oil spill] incident serves as an eye opener to the neglect the Verde Island Passage has long suffered despite its socioeconomic and ecological significance,” Protect Verde Island Passage, a coalition of communities, fisherfolk and advocates, said in a statement.
Stung by the impact of the spill, many fisherfolk have joined the calls to protect their home and way of life. “What’s more important is for us to take care of our waters because to us, fisherfolks, it’s our life,” Panopio said.
Banner image: Fishers in San Agapito barangay on Verde Island in Batangas province prepare their nets in September. Fishing bans issued at the height of the oil spill have been lifted and fishing is permitted again. Image by Jewel S. Cabrera for Mongabay.
This story was produced with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Sustainable Interventions for Biodiversity, Oceans, and Landscapes in partnership with the Association of Young Environmental Journalists, under the Green Beat Plus biodiversity journalism training program. The content and publication of the report are the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.
Carpenter, K.E., Springer, V.G. The center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity: the Philippine Islands. Environ Biol Fish 72, 467–480 (2005). https://doi:10.1007/s10641-004-3154-4
Agaton, Casper & Guno, Charmaine & Labog, Russel & Collera, Angelie. (2023). Immediate Socio-Economic Impacts of Mindoro Oil Spill to Fisherfolk in Naujan, Philippines. doi:10.21203/rs.3.rs-2828018/v1
Asif, Zunaira & Chen, Zhi & An, Chunjiang & Dong, Jinxin. (2022). Environmental Impacts and Challenges Associated with Oil Spills on Shorelines. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering. 10. 762. doi:10.3390/jmse10060762
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