Philippine oil spill threatens marine biodiversity center

Camille Elemia
Philippine oil spill threatens marine biodiversity center A member of the Philippine Coast Guard collects water samples from an oil spill in the waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, central Philippines, March 2, 2023.
Handout/Philippine Coast Guard

Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET on 2023-03-03

The Philippine government was rushing on Friday to contain the spread of an oil spill from a tanker that sank near the Verde Island Passage, considered the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the central Philippines.

Artemio Abu, commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), joined a surveillance overflight in the vicinity of waters off Naujan, in Oriental Mindoro province, where the MT Princess Empress sank earlier this week with a cargo of 800,000 liters of industrial fuel. Its crew of 20 were rescued.

The coast guard said it spotted an oil spill measuring 2 to 3 kilometers (1.2 to 1.9 miles) long.

PCG spokesperson Rear Adm. Armand Balilo said the government had designated the affected coastal towns of Naujan, Pola, Pinamalayan, and Bongabong as “exclusion areas” due to health threats from the spill. Apart from being a threat to marine life, the environmental disaster could threaten the fishermen in the area where fishing is people’s primary livelihood. 

“We have imposed an exclusion [zone]. It means there are areas that cannot be accessed because it would be dangerous and may affect the health of individuals,” Balilo said in an interview with dzBB radio in Manila.

The tanker sank to a depth of 400 meters (1,312 feet), making it difficult for the divers to reach the ship, Balilo said. Strong waves in the area were also hampering the mission, as authorities scrambled to set up oil spill booms to contain the spread.

The coast guard was carrying on with an assessment of the shoreline in Barangay Bacawan, Pola Oriental Mindoro as well as the cleanup of oil sludge on the beach, Balilo said.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the government wasworking with the International Maritime Organization and the Department of Interior and Local Government and was ready to provide support to the local government.

"The government, through the Department of Social Workand Development (DSWD), is prepared to provide various forms of assistance tofamilies and individuals affected by the oil spill caused by the submerged MTPrincess Empress in Oriental Mindoro,” he said in a statement.

“We are closely monitoring the situation with the PhilippineCoast Guard (PCG) as the lead agency. Special attention will be given to theaffected fisherfolks who will be losing their source of livelihood because ofthe oil spill.” 

Coast guard chief Adm. Artemio Abu joins the aerial survey above waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, March 3, 2023. [Handout photo/Philippine Coast Guard]

Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was warning of threats to 21 locally managed marine protected areas.

“The spill appears to be flowing southwards towards the southern part of Oriental Mindoro,” Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga said in a video message Thursday.

A study by the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau said that seagrass beds, mangroves, and dispersion pathways for spawned fish larvae were at potential risk. DENR personnel were now focused on coastal clean-up, because possible contamination could affect the viability of these marine ecosystems, officials said.

Loyzaga said authorities were also collecting water samples in 12 sites and spraying dispersants at the spill.

Environmental groups called on the government to speed up operations, warning that the already threatened Verde Island Passage was at further risk. 

The passage, surrounded by Oriental Mindoro and four other provinces, is recognized as the center of global shore-fish biodiversity and provides food and livelihoods for over 2 million people, according to Conservation International Philippines, an NGO. 

“We are calling on the government to expedite cleanup operations to minimize the damage and allow the people who depend on the riches of the sea to resume their normal activities,” Father Edwin Gariguez, convenor of the Protect Verde Island Passage campaign network, said on Wednesday.

“Fish may experience reduced growth and the turbid waters will make it harder for seagrasses and corals to grow,” he said. “Potential fish kills due to the oil spill may cause lesser fish stock out of the already dwindling fish catch.”

The DENR has created a task force to address the problem. Undersecretary Marilou Erni was appointed as task force commander, having served as the corporate ground response coordinator during the Guimaras oil spill in 2006, the worst spill the country has so far recorded.

That occurred in August 2006 when the tanker M/T Solar 1 sank off the coast of the island province of Guimaras, spilling more than 2.1 million liters of bunker fuel.

This report has been updated to include comments from the Philippine president.


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