Over 36,000 hectares of marine habitats potentially affected after oil spill – experts

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 4) — More than 36,000 hectares of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass may be at risk due to the oil spill in Mindoro waters, marine experts warned on Saturday, with the slick feared to spread further to Cuyo Island in Palawan.

In its latest bulletin, the University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute (MSI) estimated that 20,000 hectares of coral reef, 9,900 hectares of mangroves, and 6,000 hectares of seagrass may be affected by the oil spill.

"More than half of potentially affected reefs (11,000 ha) are found in the Cuyo group of islands," the report read.

Around 21 municipalities from the provinces of Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro, Palawan, and Antique were projected to be impacted by the oil slick — which is roughly around 25 kilometers long and 300 to 500 meters wide, based on the latest data.

This was caused by the sunken tanker MT Princess Empress that was transporting 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil. It capsized in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro due to engine trouble last Feb. 28.

"Among the coastal sites that may be at risk are several marine protected areas (MPAs) including but not limited to the reefs in Bulalacao, Oriental Mindoro, amounting to some 1,100 ha of coral reefs," the MSI reported.

RELATED: Oil slick spreads to most of marine protected areas in 10 Oriental Mindoro towns

Marine scientists said significant seagrass beds are located in various areas, including the coastal communities of Pola, Mansalay, and Bulalacao in Oriental Mindoro.

"Caluya Island in Northwestern Antique, which has a high possibility of being affected based on the oil spill trajectory model, also has significant areas of coral reefs (2,900 ha), mangroves (350 ha), and seagrass meadows (850 ha)," the bulletin said.

Conservation group Oceana stressed aquatic pollution is punishable under Philippine laws, including the Fisheries Code, Clean Water Act, and the Oil Pollution Law.

"Those responsible should pay for damages that include Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) to the affected areas and the sectors concerned," said Oceana vice president Gloria Estenzo Ramos. "Oil spill, such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon cases in the United States and in Guimaras and Cordova in the Philippines has lasting effects and can take decades before the benefits of the marine ecosystem are restored although not fully."

"That is why, measures should be strictly enforced and those who have been remiss in their duties should be held accountable. In addition, with the already-felt impacts of climate change, we need to shift gears and lessen our dependency on fossil fuels including oil and gas, and move towards a carbon-free future," she added.

Where will the oil slick go?

In a separate bulletin, the MSI presented three forecasts for the oil slick over the next four days, which the Environment department is currently using to come up with actions.

The institute said satellite images from the Philippine Space Agency complemented its third scenario: The oil slick will be transported southwards, some of it will pass through Caluya Island in Northwestern Antique then reaching Cuyo Island in Sulu Sea.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported that the oil slick has already reached the shores of three barangays in Caluya town.

The other two scenarios are: the spillage would go north towards the Verde Island Passage, considered the "Center of the Center of Marine Shore Fish Biodiversity," or most of the slick would end up in Pola Bay.

Pola town is already under a state of calamity, with 10,000 affected families receiving food packs.

"The public and local governments along the projected routes are now being warned about the possibility of oil slick deposition in many coastal areas south of Mindoro," the bulletin said.

"Though agencies looked at the feasibility of deploying booms to contain surface oil within its boundaries, both the experts and the PCG aired concern that the strong waves caused by the prevailing Amihan winds might render the oil booms ineffective at containing the spill," it also reported.