Guimaras still reeling from 2006 oil spill, staying away from dirty fossil fuel for good

Fishermen on the island-province of Guimaras, known for producing the world’s sweetest mangoes, continue to feel the long-term effect of an oil spill that happened almost 12 years ago.

Gov. Samuel T. Gumarin said the oil spill has taught the people in the province a lesson about dirty fossil fuel like oil. And this prompted them to declare a ban on coal and other dirty energy sources like fuel in Guimaras recently.

The province was severely affected by what is now known as the “Guimaras oil spill” on August 11, 2006, when the oil tanker MT Solar sank off the coast of Guimaras.  The oil tanker was carrying more than 2 million liters of bunker fuel.  Around 500,000 liters were spilled.

The oil spill affected marine sanctuaries and mangrove forests in three of the five municipalities in Guimaras.  It also reached the shores of Iloilo and Negros Occidental.  Guimaras Strait, where the oil spill occurred, connects the Visayan Sea with the Sulu Sea—a rich fishing ground in the Western Visayas Region. Because of the oil spill, fishing activities ceased for about a year.

This writer chanced upon 43-year-old Hermando Gallo of Barangay Ligas in the town of San Lorenzo, along the beach of Aplaya de Paraiso, a resort in San Lorenzo town around 6 p.m. last Friday with his teenage son, Jeck, and another fisherman, pulling out their fish net to the shores.

The method called sahid is common among fishermen to catch fish without going to the open waters onboard their bancas, often for their own consumption and, if lucky to catch more than enough, to sell to the nearby flea market for extra cash.

They were removing only a handful of fish caught from the net: a couple of torsillo and several small reef fishes, visibly small and young ones—their catch for the day.

Speaking in mixed Filipino and Ilonggo, Gallo said fishing was never the same in Guimaras after the oil spill.

“If your job is fishing alone, you’ll go hungry.  You need to have more than one job,” he said. “The fish are scarce.  If you really want to catch fish, you now have to go farther away from the shore.”

Still, he said the average fish catch does not exceed 5 kilos. “You are lucky if you can catch 5 kilos nowadays.”

“Before, we can catch 10 to 15 kilos in just a few hours, and we do not even have to go far out to the seas to catch,” he added. Gallo has been fishing since he was a teenager.  “I started when I was young.  I was 15, the same age as my son is learning to fish now.”

But he is worried.  He said fishing in Guimaras is no longer profitable.  Fishing alone could not possibly make ends meet, he said. “You have to have another job.   Carpentry, if there are offers, or do farming and livestock.”

Alfred Quinto, 33, of Barangay Suclaran, Sitio Baybay, said fishing was a lot better before the spill.

Fishermen, he noted, are forced to borrow money from him and another fish dealer to make ends meet. “I lend them money so that they can go fishing because they have no capital.” Fishermen need gasoline for their motorized bancas to catch commercially viable fish and other seafood.

For Quinto, despite the devastating impact of the oil spill, Guimaras continues to provide food on the table of a lot of fishermen.

Every day, he said he goes to the docking area in Barangay Suclaran where fishermen who owe him money bring their catch.  Some are fortunate if they are able to catch live lobster, which he buys at P2,100 per kilo.

Locally called banagan, he sells lobster to another dealer for export.  Grouper fish, or lapu-lapu, locally called “inib,” is another prize catch.  “I buy them at P250 a kilo.  Sometimes, I sell them at the local market for P350 a kilo,” he said.

Sometimes, he said his daily P10,000 capital would have been spent buying all morning, as fishermen continue to bring in their catch.

“They start arriving around 6:30 a.m.  I’ll be here waiting until 9 a.m.  Sometimes, they bring me a lot of fish.  Sometimes, there’s none.  They had to go farther, unlike before, you can catch fish and lobster just a few meters from the shores,” he said.

The province does not want to forget that incident 12 years ago, which is why it has been commemorating the Guimaras Oil Spill to remind them of its devastating impact and how it changed the lives of the people on the island. Last Saturday Gumarin led local officials in welcoming and playing host to the crew of Greenpeace’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, as part of its Climate Justice Ship Tour in the Philippines.

Aside from pushing for programs in line with his thrust to make the province the agri-ecotourism capital of the Western Visayas region, Gumarin wants Guimaras to be known for producing clean renewable energy, in line with his commitment to combat climate change.

“Balangaw: The Climate Justice Ship Tour” is part of Greenpeace’s five-month “Climate Change and People Power” tour of Southeast Asia. The Philippine leg started from February 14 to 18 in Manila, followed by a protest action at the Shell Batangas refinery on February 21. From Guimaras, the ship will sail to Tacloban in Eastern Visayas, arriving on February 28 and staying until March 4, before it sails on to Indonesia.

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