New oil slick spotted in Philippine biodiversity hotspot in Oriental Mindoro

Residents have yet to recover from the economic and ecological destruction of last year’s massive oil spill. Civil society is now calling for the area to be protected under more stringent laws.

Oil slick Oriental Mindoro
Fresh oil reaches the shores of the towns of Buhay na Tubig and Bacawan in the province of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, in the Philippines. Pola was the epicenter of the massive oil spill in March 2023: Mayor Jennifer Cruz

Aldrin Villanueva, 54 years old, was alarmed when he heard from one of the sea patrollers on Tuesday morning that an oil slick was sighted off the coast of Pola in the Philippines province of Oriental Mindoro.

As a leader in Pola’s fishing community, he immediately learns of any sea-related incidents in his area via radio.

The initial information he got, was that an oil slick was spotted roughly 650 metres off the town of Buhay na Tubig, before being sighted near the town of Bacawan. For now, fishing is suspended in these towns. 

Pola’s mayor Jennifer Cruz told local media the oil slick’s source was still unclear, although it could also originate from the sunken MT Princess Empress from March 2023. 

Considered the worst oil spill in almost two decades, last year’s disaster led to the first large-scale fishing ban implemented in Pola, home to thousands who rely solely on the fishing industry for their livelihood. The tragedy was also feared to have destroyed thousands of hectares of marine protected areas in the Verde Island Passage, which encompasses the province.

Aldrin Villanueva

Aldrin Villanueva, fisherfolk leader in Pola, Oriental Mindoro and president of Koalisyon ng mga Mangingisda Apektado ng Oil Spill (KMAOS), which means Coalition of Fisherfolk Affected by Oil Spill. Image: Aldrin Villanueva

Five months after Princess Empress, Villanueva returned to fish, but lamented how he and his fellow fishermen’s catches have dwindled.

“We have not even recovered from last year, because our catch has not returned to normal and we have not received the full compensation promised to us,” Villanueva told Eco-Business.

Criminal charges for falsifying documents, have been recommended by the department of justice against RDC Reield Marine Services, the owner of MT Princess Empress. But the company has not committed to any compensation.

The International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC), a London-based nonprofit that assists members suffering from oil spills from tankers, has given partial payment of US$238 to 627, out of 5,000 affected fisherfolk in Pola. 

Each beneficiary stands to receive different amounts, depending on experts’ assessment of the claims submitted by those affected. Villanueva said others were set to receive an average of US$920 each. It is only a fraction of the IOPC funds that are supposed to cover US$248 million in damages.

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A crab covered with oil on the shore near Pola, Oriental Mindoro on 25 June 2024. Image: Jennifer Cruz

Marine Protected Areas need stronger protection

The towns of Buhay na Tubig and Bacawan are within the Verde Island Passage’s corridor, known to have the highest concentration of marine species in the world.

The marine corridor and the towns are considered marine protected areas (MPAs), where human activity is limited by law to that which does not damage the environment. However, “stronger protection” is needed, said Fr. Edwin Gariguez, lead convenor of the Protect the Verde Island Passage (ProtectVIP), a civil coalition that seeks to protect the green corridor.

“We urge the Marcos administration and the department of environment and natural resources to declare the VIP as a protected area under the ENIPAS Act as a starting point, to prevent more oil spills and other ecological disasters,” Gariguez said in a statement.

oil spill oriental mindoro 2024

An oil-drenched squid that washed onto Pola’s shores in Oriental Mindoro on 25 June 2024. Image: Mayor Jennifer Cruz.

Protected areas under the ENIPAS, or Expanded National Integrated Protected Area Systems, are larger scale as these fall under national jurisdiction, whereas MPAs are only locally managed, said Ivan Andres, deputy head of research and policy at think tank Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED).

ENIPAS sites offer more support due to funding from the national government. In comparison, community and local government-managed MPAs often have to rely on funding from local officials and tourism receipts,” Andres told Eco-Business.

With more funds, ENIPAS sites can afford more area patrols to guard against environmentally-harmful activities, added Andres.

He also pointed out that the national department of justice can also appoint special prosecutors to handle cases, and assist in training of wardens and rangers to arrest those caught carrying out illegal activities in the area, such as illegal fishing or polluting the sea. 

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