Posted on February 27, 2023
ENVIRONMENTAL and fisherfolk’s groups have called on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), along with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), to intervene in widespread dredging activities in the Manila Bay that the groups say are causing significant environmental damage and destroying fish stocks. Given what is known about the dredging operations, including recent revelations of illegal dredging by some Chinese contractors, the groups’ request to the DENR to impose a temporary suspension on dredging work until ongoing projects can be carefully reviewed is not only reasonable, it is an imperative.
The dredging work is being done to mine sand for several reclamation projects that are being constructed in other parts of Manila Bay. These projects have likewise been in activists’ crosshairs for their potential damage to the bay ecosystem and livelihoods, particularly since some of the work was hastily approved without public consultation during the pandemic by the previous administration. The dredging activity, however, is seen as a more immediate and destructive problem.
According to statements from Agham-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People and the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) groups at the beginning of the week, the critical area of concern is along the San Nicholas Shoal, which lies offshore from the Cavite province towns of Rosario, Naic and Ternate. Dredging activity has already reportedly caused a noticeable decline in the fish population, presumably due to the degradation of water quality from stirred-up mud and sand. Fishermen in the area have also sounded the alarm over the destruction of the seabed that serves as a nursery for some fish species, which will cause an even more precipitous decline in the fish population.
The Pamalakaya group also said there have been several incidents of fishermen’s nets being snagged and destroyed by the dredging equipment.
The concerned groups reported that they had sent formal letters to both the DENR and BFAR requesting a dialogue to air their concerns, and recommending that the DENR impose a temporary halt to all reclamation-related dredging activity in Manila Bay until the various projects could be reviewed and the complaints properly addressed. Spokesmen for the groups told the media that they had hoped the requesting meetings could have been held this past week, but as of Friday it did not appear that either agency had even acknowledged receipt of the letters, let alone make any arrangements to hear the complaints.
While any dialogue should certainly include all the parties concerned — the developers and contractors carrying out the dredging and reclamation work as well as the affected communities — there is ample justification for the DENR to do exactly what the groups have recommended, which is to halt the dredging activity until matters can be satisfactorily resolved. At about the same time the groups were attempting to reach out to the DENR and BFAR, it was disclosed to the public that several Chinese vessels, evidently contractors for the ongoing reclamation projects, had been identified by the National Coast Watch Center as being engaged in “suspicious activities” and “operating outside their approved areas of operation.”
If these vessels were able to operate illegally for a period of time, it is a near-certainty that there is other unauthorized or reckless dredging activity being carried out. The costs of a temporary suspension of operations pales in comparison to the costs of the potential long-term damage if illicit or destructive dredging is allowed to continue. As for the ongoing reclamation projects, they need not necessarily stop if dredging is temporarily halted, but will simply have to find an alternative source of materials while the dredging issues are being resolved.
How those might be resolved will have to be worked out by the various stakeholders and the relevant agencies, but solutions should be available. For example, a satisfactory fix may be as simple as moving dredging operations to areas where the impacts will not be as severe, or combining dredging operations for construction materials with dredging done for flood control purposes and maintenance of navigation channels.