Verde Island Passage in danger: World’s center of shore fish biodiversity under siege

With the Northeast Monsoon ending soon, the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) expressed concern that the ocean current would bring the industrial oil slick from the seepage of the sunken MT Princess Empress tanker to the Verde Island Passage (VIP).

Using oil spill trajectory models based on the most recent satellite images, Villanoy said the responders to the Mindoro oil spill now have a very short window of opportunity, or until the Holy Week, at the latest, to stop the seepage from the ill-fated vessel, or the oil is expected to affect others, including the coastal towns in Palawan that is considered as the country’s last ecological frontier and host to one of the richest fishing grounds in the country.

Rocks are blackened by industrial oil slick that seeped from the sunken MT Princess Empire that reached the shores of Barangay Buhay na Tubig in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

In his presentation during a Senate inquiry on March 14, oceanography expert Cesar L. Villanoy said the only thing that is preventing this to happen is the Northeast Monsoon, or the Hanging Amihan. which is blowing the oil spill toward the direction of Naujan and Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Another important area that will be hugely affected is the Verde Island Passage, which is declared by scientists as the world’s “center of the center of shore fish biodiversity.”

Villanoy, the project leader of the Benham Bank expedition in 2014 and 2016, has a master’s and Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography from the University of Sydney in Australia.

Man-made calamity

MT Princess Empress sank at Balingawan point off Naujan town in Oriental Mindoro province after its engine overheated while traveling to central Iloilo province, the Philippine Coast Guard said.

Oil spill is considered a disastrous man-made calamity. This became clear during the Senate hearing.

The MT Princess Empress had no updated permit to operate in the form of an amendment to its Certificate of Public Convenience issued to its owner, RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., the Senate was informed.

This should have been enough for the Philippine Coast Guard to keep the vessel from sailing pending compliance of the regulatory requirement.

However, the vessel was able to sail—nine times—before the tragedy,

With such violation, RDC’s insurance is at risk of forfeiture, and would make it difficult for the company to finance the massive remediation measures, provide livelihood assistance to affected communities and pay the communities for the penalties and fines to be slapped by the government.

Reminiscent of Guimaras

The scenes on the coastal areas of Oriental Mindoro affected by the oil spill days after the sinking of the oil tanker were reminiscent of the scenes several days into the Guimaras oil spill in 2006, the worst of such event in the country’s history.

MT Solar 1 tanker was then carrying more than 2-million liters of bunker fuel of Petron when it sank during a violent storm some 20.5 kilometers off the southern coast of Guimaras province.

The oil slick spread through the straits of Guimaras and Iloilo, and affected marine sanctuaries and mangrove reserves in three out of five municipalities on Guimaras Island.

The oil spill also reached the shores of Iloilo and Negros Occidental.

MT Solar 1 should not have been allowed to sail because of the violent storm.

According to Environment Assistant Secretary Marcial C. Amaro, the oil seepage from the sunken MT Princess Empress that was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial oil, has already affected around 8,000 hectares of mangrove areas in Pola, Oriental Mindoro, and over 2,000 hectares of mangroves, 1,600 hectares of corals and 1,000 hectares of seagrass in the other eight towns of the province.

Economically important

The Mindoro oil spill is seriously threatening the rich biodiversity in Verde Island Passage, a strait that separates the islands of Luzon and Mindoro.

In a study by world renowned marine scientist Dr. Kent Carpenter and other marine scientists in 2005, the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor covers around 1.14 million hectares of the marine area along portions of the provinces of Batangas, Oriental and Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon.

It has the highest concentration of marine species in the world, thus it is dubbed as the “center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity in the world.”

Meanwhile, 10 years later, in 2015, a study done by a group of scientists from the California Academy of Science yielded around 100 new species discoveries in the VIP, raising further its importance for global biodiversity.

According to Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, executive director of Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), its richness has contributed to the sustainability of the livelihoods of over 7 million people living in the coastal provinces of VIP.

Fishing, aquaculture and tourism are thriving in the region. Even though it is a strait, the VIP is also an important passageway for both commercial and industrial ships from Manila or Batangas and going to and from the southern parts of the Philippines.

An Asean concern

Oil spills do not recognize national or regional boundaries, Lim pointed out, citing the interconnectivity of marine ecosystems in the Asean.

ACB, which is Asean’s response to biodiversity loss in the region, is ready to spring into action to help cushion the impact of disastrous oil spills.

“As part of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines stand to lose much more of globally significant marine biodiversity to man-made threats, such as oil spills,” said Lim, a former director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR),.

The regional group recognizes the transboundary nature of such threats, making it pursue the adoption of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Asean Cooperation Mechanism for Joint Oil Spill Preparedness and Response in 2018,” Lim said.

The ACB has also recently undertaken a study on the interconnectivity of marine resources in the region, demonstrating how stresses on high coastal and marine biodiversity areas in the Philippines can impact fishery productivity, marine ecotourism, and other biodiversity-based industries across the region.

“It is in this light that the ACB, as the only Asean center hosted by the Philippines and a center focused on addressing biodiversity loss in the region, would be ready to support, as deemed appropriate by the Philippine government, measures that will facilitate coordination with other AMS [Asean member states] in responding to oil spills in accordance with the MOU,” Lim explained.

She added that ACB is ready to assist “most especially, on steps toward long-term prevention and on the enhancement and development of nature-based solutions that would increase the resiliency of our coastal and marine ecosystems and allow faster recovery from such disasters.”

“With the current situation, the focus should still be on the quick response and immediate measures to prevent the spill from moving toward the VIP,” Lim said.

‘Polluter must pay’

Environmental groups are demanding full responsibility and accountability from the owners of the MT Princess Empress for the 800,000 liters of industrial oil that has now affected and caused the declaration of state calamity in nine Oriental Mindoro coastal towns, and nearby areas on Semirara Island and Antique province.

Joining calls for accountability, the group Protect Verde Island Passage (Protect VIP), through its lead convenor, Fr. Edwin Gariguez, issued a statement condemning the company responsible for the oil spill and the catastrophe it has been causing.

The Protect VIP campaign network has earlier said the incident must serve as an “eye opener” to the neglect the Verde Island Passage has long suffered despite its socioeconomic and ecological significance.

It said the oil spill, besides putting VIP in danger, has put at risk more than 30 of Oriental Mindoro’s marine-protected areas.

Image credits: Greenpeace Philippines , Oceana Philippines