Marine Life and Livelihood: Inquirer zooms in on Manila Bay fisherfolk and their plight

CHEERS TO the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s two-part series focusing on the fisherfolk in Manila Bay and the dangerous effect of quarrying and reclamation projects to both the country’s marine resources and the livelihood of fisherfolk. Published on January 30 and 31, Krixia Subingsubing and Mariejo Ramos questioned the quarrying of the seabed to transport sand and other materials for use of reclamation projects, a policy that began in the seventies. 

The first part took on the perspective of Edwin Rosales, a fisherman from Bataan who fishes “alubaybay,” a variety of sardines, in the Manila Bay. Rosales didn’t always fish outside of his hometown of Limay, Bataan, but he has been forced to venture farther out to Bulacan or Cavite as his catch has gotten smaller. Bataan is west of the Bay, across the coastlines of Manila, Cavite and Bulacan.

The report pointed to quarrying and reclamation as having “wrecked” the coastal marine ecosystem, driving fisherfolk farther out to  sea for their catch. The report  pointed out how seabed mining activities, “or the extraction of mud, silt, and sand from the seafloor,” increased after former President Rodrigo Duterte lifted the nine-year moratorium on mineral agreements in April 2021, undoing Executive Order No. 79 issued during the Benigno Aquino III presidency.

The Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) confirmed two ongoing operations in Manila Bay, saying it gave permits to VIL Mines Inc. and the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) since the two had complied “with the requirement to introduce mitigating measures.” Inquirer also obtained a copy of a statement from VIL Mines promising to stay away from  fishing grounds and to implement “social development and management plans” for fisherfolk.

But for the fisherfolk of Limay, the promises offered little assurance, as dredging vessels only “crowd them out,” destroying hatching grounds for sardines and threadfin bream (“bisugo”). Subingsubing and Ramos interviewed fisherfolk, one of whom said he had encountered dredging vessels up close. They’d run over his nets “like they own the sea.” Another said the sediments in the water cling to their nets and are difficult to remove. 

The report further noted that as the sea becomes deeper because of the extractions, waves can more easily penetrate coastlines, making the communities that live near the water more vulnerable to the danger and devastation caused by storms. 

Fernando Siringan, a marine scientist from the University of the Philippines (UP) said that quarrying leaves the seabed “too muddy for fish to stay.” He added that scooping out sand will release “dormant cysts of red tide species” that could reproduce and repopulate the water surface, causing algal blooms which are toxic to marine life. 

The second part dives into the fundamental conflict between reclamation and the need to preserve the ecosystem of sea beds which hold lifelines that allow communities to fish. Rosales said barangay officials described Manila Bay as  “dead water,” “a “sewer” dissuading them from fishing in the area. But the fisher community continues to rely on these waters for fish which they salt and dry to sell. The Inquirer report showed photos of plentiful catch. 

Environmental groups have asked the government to conduct a thorough study of Manila Bay’s ecosystem before green-lighting any more dump-and-fill and seabed quarrying projects that “are reversing the ongoing rehabilitation efforts there.” Siringan of UP also said that the government “must take stock of its marine resources, including how to tap mineral resources with minimal impact on the environment.”

The report also shed light on contradictory laws and regulations. Administrative Order No. 2000-25 of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) permits seabed quarrying. Gloria Estenzo Ramos, lawyer and Vice President of Oceana Philippines, pointed out that seabed quarrying — despite the DENR order — runs counter to the Fisheries Code or Republic Act (RA) 8850. The RA states that an extensive environmental impact assessment is needed before exploration of fishing areas and habitats. Ramos added that allowing seabed quarrying goes against the mandate of local governments which have the “principal responsibility to protect their waters.” 

Inquirer’s series calls attention to the policy fault lines that encourage all kinds of real estate development on reclaimed land that are contrary to the protection of valuable marine life and the ecosystem. 

These issues need to be unpacked carefully to establish the primacy of protecting the sea and its resources, and the rights of the people who live on its bounty. 

The report did well to note that not all stories have to start from the official point of view. This account started with the people whose lives and livelihood have been adversely affected by unchecked reclamation projects— whose lives took a turn for the worse as quarrying muddied the waters of Manila Bay.