Photo from Jack Zumarraga

Experts are worried about what the oil spill off the coast of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, could do to the province of Palawan if it gets here.

According to the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UPMSI), the prevailing rough sea weather condition increases factors like strong waves and wind velocity to speed up the spread of the oil slick.

Based on the projections made earlier by the institute, the oil slick is expected to reach the Calamianes group of islands in northern Palawan as early as March 7.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) District Palawan commander Capt. Dennis Rem Labay stated there was no evidence of an oil spill on the specified day, but it is only a matter of time and day before it reaches the coasts of the northern provincial territories.

“Tinatawagan ko isa isa yong mga substation, yong mga island substation—from Cuyo, Agutaya, Coron, Dumaran, Araceli—lahat, magre-report sila, but as of yesterday (March 7), wala,” he said, adding their reporting will be daily.

“Yong spill kasi, just to be honest, imminent yon na darating doon. It’s a matter of anong araw, gaano karami, or baka hindi talaga makarating doon kasi naubos na. Lumabas na siya lahat,” he added.

Seaweed production in danger
Seaweed farming communities in the towns of Agutaya and Cuyo are busy on the ground making improvised spill booms to protect their livelihoods from the threat of the spill hitting their coastlines.

Residents started lining their coasts with improvised oil spill barriers on March 5 using recycled clothing, plastic bottles, and coconut fiber.

According to the Bureau of Aquatic Resources’ (BFAR) Philippine Seaweed Industry Roadmap, Agutaya is the top seaweed producer in the MIMAROPA region, with 1,648 hectares of seaweed farms.

This is around one-third of the province’s entire seaweed farm area.

An average ⅛ hectare farm in the island town would yield 1,000 kilograms of dried and another 1,000 kilograms of wet seaweeds that would be sold for P68,000.00. With a production cost of P27,769.92, a farm would earn P40,230.08 in one cropping period, with a full return on investment to be achieved on the third cropping.

With the possibility of the oil slick reaching the seaweed farms comes the possibility of loss, leaving the farmers heavily in debt.

Saving marine protected areas
Around 12,851 hectares of the 20,000 hectares of coral reefs anticipated to be impacted by the oil spill are inside the municipal waters of the Calamianes municipalities.

Coron has at least six marine protected areas (MPAs) that have taken nearly two decades to secure, and conservation is on the brink of demise.

Tourism impact
Ms. Christina Garcia-Frasco, Secretary of Tourism (DOT), is concerned about the impact of the oil leak on the tourism business.

“The DOT notes with seriousness the oil spill incident and its grave impact on the tourism industry, including disruptions in the livelihood of the affected communities, tourism-dependent businesses, and recreational activities,” she said.

“Scuba diving, beach, and cruise tourism depend on the region’s coastal resources, and are also its major tourism products. If unmitigated, the oil spill can have adverse impacts on three of the world-class dive destinations in the Philippines, specifically the Verde Island passage and Apo Reef in Mindoro, and Coron’s World War II Wrecks and Philippine Dugong,” she added.

Around 4,055 hectares of seagrass and 5,038 hectares of mangrove forest, home to the endangered sea cow or dugong (Dugong dugon) and other marine species are also in peril.

Threat to food security
This poses a knock-on food security, an associate professor of UPMSI warned.

“Immediately, this has impact on photosynthetic organisms in the water column. We know that photosynthetic organisms are the base of the food chain, immediately it will affect the source of our fish and other organisms we use for food,” Dr. Irene Rodriguez said.

“If the oil slick reaches the coast, the beaches, the mangroves, the effect will be worse. It will cause the death of organisms or loss of movements in some marine organisms and it will change the ecology. If there is death in the important parts of ecosystems, it will have cascading effects down the line to other organisms in other ecosystems,” she added.

Per data of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), Palawan remained to be the top fish producing province in the MIMAROPA region with 41,455 metric tons of fish produced in the 1st quarter of 2020.

This represents 4.2 percent of the overall fish production of the country.

The majority of these were caught in the West Sulu Sea, which the oil spill is likely to reach if not contained as soon as possible.

Palawan also provides 45% of the fish requirements of Manila.

Palawan braces for impacts
Palawan Governor Victorino Dennis Socrates has convened an emergency meeting with relevant agencies to prepare for the impending disaster.

The Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO), led by Jeremias Alili, is on top of the situation on the Palawan government’s side.

Labay stated that the District Oil Spill Contingency Plan (DOSCOP) is ready to respond to any potential impacts of the disaster.

Prepositioning of oil spill combating equipment, such as dispersants, backpack sprayers, absorbent pads, and spill booms, including indigenous ones made by volunteers and municipal governments, is one of the most important steps in the DOSCOP.

“Yan ang pinaka important, pinaka preparation ng mga units natin sa area with the help of mga fisherfolk. Iniharang na nila yong mga spill booms nila doon sa mga beaches nila, pero wala pang spill, inunahan lang nila,” he said.