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Philippine oil spill spares 47,000 ha of coral
More than 47,000 hectares of hard coral in the coastal areas of southern Guimaras were found to have been spared from destruction by the oil spill, according to a team of scientists from Silliman University.
Dr. Angel Alcala, director of the Silliman University Angelo King Center for Research and Environmental Management (SUACKREM), revealed what could be the only piece of good news about the oil spill, in an interview with the Inquirer.
“It must have been high tide when the oil reached the shore,” Alcala surmised, noting that no trace of the oil spill has been found on the corals near the shoreline.
Corals serve as both food and home of fish and other marine organisms. They form part of the coastal ecosystem, which feed about 70 percent of the Filipino population.
Alcala, former environment secretary and an acknowledged authority on coral reefs, led the scientists in the weeklong expedition during the last week of August after Petron Corp. sought the university's help in evaluating the damage and mapping out a comprehensive rehabilitation plan.
The scientists conducted coastal and underwater surveys in 15 randomly chosen points in the affected areas, particularly in the islands of Unisan, Malinging and the Taclong Island National Park, which was declared a marine protected area in 1990.
Alcala said 100 ha, or one square kilometer, of a good coral reef could generate between 15 to 20 tons of fish a year.
The southern Guimaras' reefs, he said, could generate five tons of fish for every square kilometer.
But he warned that continuous monitoring is needed because there was still a possibility for the remaining oil to sink and stay underneath the ocean. Oil could combine with mineral particles in the water column and sink to the reef, he said.
The effects of evaporation and of sunlight can also cause oil to sink into deeper reefs, he added.
Other areas recommended for further monitoring are the health condition of the people, coastal ecosystems, sediments and plankton, fisheries and other forms of wildlife.
Alcala said it would be good for local governments in nearby areas, which are still unaffected by the oil spill, to install booms to block any possible contamination in their shorelines.
Booms are netting materials filled with coconut husks, cogon, bagasse and other absorbent materials, proven effective in protecting the coastlines of Igang and Taclong islands, he said.
Among the areas where scientists recommend the setting up of booms are the coastline of southern Negros Occidental and northern Guimaras.
“Luckily,” he said, “bunker oil is lowly-processed oil and this can be eaten up by bacteria after several years.”
The scientists, however, noted the extensive damage caused by the oil spill on the mangrove areas, particularly the young plants. “All mangrove seedlings are doomed,” Alcala said.
The juvenile mangroves can be replaced next year, once the mature mangroves produce another set of seedlings, he said. But he noted that it was possible that the mangroves might not bear seedlings next year.
“They have been under a lot of stress and this might affect their natural cycle,” Alcala said.
Among the short-term solutions listed by the scientists were:
the immediate removal of the oil in the sunken ship but only after residents of areas at risk are prepared for further oil leakage;
continuing cleanup efforts until all signs of oil in the water are removed;
and the immediate disposal of collected oil and debris using a landfill.
The study also cautioned against the use of oil spill dispersants and exotic bacteria in eliminating the oil on the mangroves. “Affected mangroves are better left alone than sprayed with dispersants and bacteria. Decomposition of the oil is hastened by improving tidal flushing in mangrove areas,” the report said.
To give the affected families income during this period and beyond, the university has also recommended the granting of micro-credit, skills training and temporary employment.
Other possible alternative forms of livelihood identified in the study were charcoal making, poultry and livestock raising, and retailing.
The scientists have also called for the immediate suspension of the grace period given to shipping companies allowing single-hulled vessels to carry hazardous material.
They also stressed the need to study shipping routes for passenger and cargo ships carrying hazardous materials. The scientists noted that cargo ships carrying hazardous materials must have specific routes that are as far as possible from critical coastal and marine ecosystems and protected areas.
Other recommendations are for oil companies to put up an Oil Spill Contingency Fund as part of their tax break and for the Coast Guard and the DENR to conduct regular trainings on oil spill management to coastal communities at risk based on shipping routes.
Meanwhile, a marine biologist doing field studies in Guimaras has called on Petron Corp. to carry out a long term rehabilitation program, particularly for the mangrove and seagrass areas.
Dr. Lemnuel Aragones, of the UP Marine Science Institute, said he was worried that no real program was being devised on how to address the medium and long term effects of the oil spill.