MANILA, Philippines — Local officials have been telling Edlyn Rosales that Manila Bay is already a dead body of water.
Friends who otherwise meant well have told her the same, she said.
But as for barangay officials who compared the 58-kilometer-wide bay “to a sewer where you can only get mud,” it dawned on Rosales finally that her family and their community were being persuaded to leave their home.
Their huts are perched on stilts and bamboo bridges on the coast of Limay town in Bataan, the province west of the bay opposite Bulacan province, Metro Manila, and Cavite province.
“Manila Bay is not a sewer,” Rosales insisted. “They’ve been telling us that Manila Bay is dead, but that is not true. We can still fish from its waters.”
In this fisherfolk community, it was her task to sift through her husband and brother’s catch — mostly “alubaybay,” a sardine variety. She would place the fish in neat rows on bamboo mats, then salt and dry them in the sun, until they are ready to be packed and sold.
With that catch, how could Manila Bay be dead?
PROOF OF LIFE Around a hundred fisherfolk live in one community alone in Limay, Bataan. Rows and rows of tuyo are lined up on their bamboo bridges. Among them is Edlyn Rosales, a longtime manunuyo. Photos by: KATHLEEN LEI LIMAYO
Environment activists supporting the fisherfolk in Limay want the government to do a thorough study of Manila Bay’s ecosystem before green-lighting dump-and-fills and seabed quarrying projects that are now overcrowding the bay.
These activities, they said, are reversing the ongoing rehabilitation efforts there.
Seabed quarrying, however, is permitted by Administrative Order No. 2000-25 of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The 2000 order authorizes the “utilization of offshore areas not covered by approved mining permits and contracts as sources of dredge fill materials for government reclamation projects and for other purposes.”
Under that directive, seabed quarrying ventures may secure a permit from the DENR, while the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, an agency of the department, is tasked to study the “character of the seafloor” in the sites for those enterprises.
Another agency, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, which is under the Department of Agriculture, evaluates how those projects may affect aquatic and fishing grounds in their intended locations.
But for Fernando Siringan, a marine scientist from the University of the Philippines (UP), these agencies should ask the proponents if they have conducted studies on the areas they wish to exploit.
The government must also take stock of its marine resources, including how to tap mineral resources “with minimal impact on the environment,” he said.
“The country needs to fund research on what lies at the bottom of our ocean. Studies on coral reefs are popular, for good reason. But even areas that are sandy or muddy are significant—and these are the kinds of environment that studies often neglect,” Siringan said.
He noted that Filipino scientists have the knowledge and capacity to do research on seabed quarrying, but not the budget and the support of the bureaucracy, whose processes are often an obstacle.
This is true even for UP’s Marine Science Institute where he teaches, Siringan said.
“Funding is part of the challenge but what’s more stressful is the procurement stage. [It is] so horrible,” he said of the government procedures in obtaining funding for the equipment needed in a particular research, for instance.
The lack of Filipino marine scientists is another disadvantage. Siringan said there are “many scientists in other fields, [but] marine scientists, especially those who look [into] mineral resources, can be counted by one hand.”
Meanwhile, scientists, civil society groups, and affected fisherfolk communities want a closer look into the quarrying enterprises.
Last year they called on the Senate to investigate those projects, which they said had proliferated after then President Rodrigo Duterte issued an executive order in 2021 reversing a moratorium imposed by Executive Order No. 79 of 2012.
According to the environmental group Oceana Philippines, seabed quarrying and ore mining are underway not only in Limay, but also in Tayabas Bay, Lingayen Gulf, and in the provinces of Cavite and Cagayan, while land reclamation or dump-and-fills are also in the pipeline at Sogod Bay (Southern Leyte), Cancabato Bay (Tacloban City), and in La Union province.
Lawyer and Oceana vice president Gloria Estenzo Ramos said that seabed quarrying — despite the DENR order permitting it — ran counter to laws against the destruction of marine habitats.
“The seabed is a habitat, same as corals, seagrass, and mangroves. That’s why no exploration or exploitation of fishing areas can happen without… an extensive environmental impact assessment process. Because that is required, it’s in the Fisheries Code (Republic Act No. 8550),” she said.
Ramos said the government must be transparent about the resulting destruction and “ensure sustainable management of our fisheries.”
She said local governments, particularly coastal cities and municipalities, have the principal responsibility to protect their waters.
“When you allow seabed quarrying, you’re allowing destruction of something upon which lies duty on your part to protect it… It’s even a violation of [your] mandate,” Ramos said.
What should coastal communities do to protect their environment?
She suggested the first step would be “to record what is being taken away from them,” adding that affected communities may note down cases of harassment and of infringement on their municipal waters and keep a record on small yet significant details such as their catch.
Fisherfolk could also learn to document illegal fishing activities. This is where organized groups such as Pangisda Pilipinas—of which Rosales is a member — could help.
Rosales recalled how stakeholders, during public consultations on a mining firm’s application to quarry Limay’s coast, appealed to authorities against its approval, as they knew this would affect their livelihood.
Pangisda and the Nuclear/Coal-free Bataan group have also filed several letters objecting not just to reclamation and quarrying projects but to the four coal-fired power plant projects in the province whose waste often feed into the bay.
Yet many still hesitate to protest quarrying because they either fear retaliation or are just in “survival mode,” Ramos said.
“They are often only concerned about their daily catch and how to sell it. So do you expect them to measure [loss and damage] or even find time to do it?” she said. “That’s why there has to be capacity building for them to realize that it is important [to gather evidence].”
Ramos also believes that seeking legal remedies can create a ripple effect on other communities affected by similarly destructive activities.
“We can increase our level of engagement in lawsuits by including impacts, damages, and loss of ecosystem services,” she said.
Both Ramos and Siringan challenged the view that Manila Bay — for centuries a natural harbor for trade in the country — had long ago breathed its last.
That notion “shows that there is a lack of appreciation of the important role of [fishing] communities” in protecting the environment, Ramos said.
Siringan said: “Even in seafloor areas with low oxygen levels,… there are still organisms that can survive in such settings.”
“That is the wonder of life on Earth—life can be found in different parts of the environment. How do they even define life? Maybe they do define it differently from us,” he said.
(This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)