MARINE scientists declared the Verde Island Passage as “the center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity in the world.”
The scientists—Kent Carpenter, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; and Victor Springer, of the Smithsonian Institution—recorded in 2005 a total of 1,736 overlapping marine species found over a 10-kilometer area, declaring that it has the highest concentration of marine life.
A vast expanse of water that separates Batangas on the main island of Luzon on one side, and the island provinces of Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon on the other, Verde Island Passage is an important fishing ground and a ship route that brings people, as well as goods and services, from one port to another. At the center, between Batangas and Mindoro, is Batangas city’s Verde Island, from which the strait was named after.
Numerous studies showed that more than half of the fish species found in the country can be found on the Verde Island Passage. It also has the most number of hard-coral species than any other areas in the world. In a 2013 study, entitled “State of Coast Report for Verde Island,” marine biologists recorded a total of 117 species of reef fish belonging to 35 families in just six small study sites around Verde Island.
Threats and more threats
However, because of the numerous threats to its ecosystem, the Verde Island Passage is also considered a marine-biodiversity hot spot.
Overpopulation, pollution, overfishing, illegal and destructive fishing, and harvesting of marine wildlife and habitat destruction have been identified as some of the serious threats to the strait. With white-sand beaches, pristine waters and the offer of the best diving experience in the world, a number of resorts have mushroomed around the Verde Island Passage, some as as early as the 1990s.
The resorts attract local and foreign tourists—while providing jobs and livelihood to coastal communities—thus, increasing human pressure to the strait’s environment and natural resources. While it is a highly productive fishing ground and now considered a popular tourist destination, the Verde Island Passage is also the main route of passenger and commercial ships, moving from one port to another.
As such, it remains highly vulnerable, not just to destructive fishing, but to shipping activities, as well.
Lately, various stakeholders in Lobo, Batangas, have expressed alarm over the potential adverse environmental impact of another serious threat to their environment: a proposed large-scale mining project in the municipality.
The proponents of the project have gained the nod, and even got the endorsement, of the local government, and are now securing an environmental clearance certificate (ECC) from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to start exploration in the area. Environmental group Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE) has launched a campaign against the project. Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan-PNE, said large-scale mining operation in Lobo threatens to destroy not only the forest, but water bodies, as well, potentially causing irreversible environmental damage “from ridge to reef.”
The Lobo River, which leads all the way to the Verde Island Passage, he said, will be at the receiving end of waterwaste from the proposed gold mine, and an accidental spill, like that of Philex Mining Corp.’s Padcal mine in Benguet, could happen and dump toxic mine waste into the Verde Island Passage.
“We really need to look into the potential adverse impact of mining operations, wherein people and environment are always at the losing end,” he said. Kalikasan-PNE said the proposed mining project threatens four declared marine conservation areas in Lobo, namely, the Lobo Mangrove Conservation Area, Sawang Olo-olo Fish Sanctuary and Refuge Area, Malabrigo Fish Sanctuary and Refuge Area and the Biga Fish Sanctuary and Refuge Area.
While it has been a decade since the declaration of its global importance, the Verde Island Passage remains “unprotected” from serious threats to its megarich biological diversity.
There are 240 protected areas, including 32 marine-protected areas (MPAs), established under Republic Act 7586, or the the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act of 1992, which provides the legal framework for the establishment of MPAs.
There are also a total of 1,620 MPAs created through local ordinances by virtue of the Fisheries Code of 1998, which mandates that 15 percent of coastal waters be set aside as marine reserves, some of which are situated within the Verde Island Passage. In 2013 Sen. Loren Legarda, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, filed a measure seeking to declare the entire region as a marine-protected area and ecological tourism zone. Senate Bill 1898, however, remains at the committee level.
A marine key biodiversity area
Underscoring the need to protect the Verde Island Passage, Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) expressed support behind the proposed measure.
While the Verde Island Passage is not a declared protected area under Nipas Act 1992, its being a marine key biodiversity area (KBA) calls for its protection from destructive human activities.
“We already identified it as a key biodiversity area in the Philippines. There are marine organisms besides coral-reef diversity there, which means there is a diversity of fishes and other important marine life that needs to be protected,” she said. Lim added that providing protection to Verde Island Passage would mean that fish and other commercially important marine products from the region will continue to benefit the entire country.
Also, Lim said there are scientific findings that the Verde Island Passage is resilient to coral breaching, making it a potential model from which the government and its private-sector partners can tailor-fit its intervention in other areas experiencing coral bleaching.
She said coral bleaching must be well understood to better address the problem.
“High resiliency means we can learn from it and help us enhance resiliency of other coral areas,” she said.
The DENR-BMB has identified all of 32 Nipas marine -protected areas and the Verde Island Passage as priorities for coral-reef mapping and associated marine-habitat assessments “for the recovery of our coastal and marine ecosystems.”
Just recently, the DENR launched a five-year initiative that aims to boost ongoing efforts to protect five of the country’s marine KBAs, including the Verde Island Passage. The others are the Lanuza Bay in Surigao Del Sur, Davao Gulf in Southern Mindanao, Tañon Strait Protected Seascape in Central Visayas and the West Sulu Sea in Southern Palawan.
“Since it has already been recognized [for protection], conservation must be coordinated and the cooperation of all local government units [LGUs] and other stakeholders is needed,” she said.
The implementation of the project will be headed by the DENR-BMB, in partnership with the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute for the West Sulu Sea Area, Conservation International-Philippines, Haribon Foundation, World Wildlife Fund-Philippines and RARE-Philippines.
A network of MPAs will be established, and the management effectiveness of local communities in these areas will be improved.
Easing the pressure
Lim said there’s a need to ease human pressure on the Verde Island Passage.
She said alternative livelihoods that are environment-friendly should be introduced to ease the pressure on the Verde Island Passage.
“We need to come up with a management plan, wherein all stakeholders will agree on. It is important that LGUs that depend on and influence the ecosystem in the area to work together. [There is a] need to cooperate and coordinate with each other before any damage becomes extensive or irreversible,” she said. Lim said it is very important to discuss the management plan among the stakeholders, including the national government, who will be benefiting from the Verde Island Passage.
Sustainable production and consumption, she said, must be the guiding principle in coming up with a comprehensive management plan for the Verde Island Passage.
This means that overfishing must be stopped, and fishing must be regulated. Resorts around the area should also do their part.
“They need to ensure that the ecosystem remains intact. Waste management, diving spots….They should learn the proper way [to protect the area],” she said.
Tourists, Lim added, should be educated about the importance of conserving the marine biodiversity.
She said shipping companies must also take part.
“They must stop throwing their waste into the ocean,” she said.
“It has to be a multistakeholder effort. It is not the responsibility of the government alone. The stakeholders should work together,” Lim said.