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|Verde Island Passage|
The strait seen from Brgy. Pagkilatan in Batangas City
Verde Island Passage is a strait that separates the islands of Luzon and Mindoro, connecting the South China Sea with the Tayabas Bay and the Sibuyan Sea beyond. It is one of the busiest sea lanes in the Philippines because it is the main shipping route between the Port of Manila and the Visayas and Mindanao in the south. Also, many ferries navigate the waters, connecting the surrounding provinces of Batangas, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro and Romblon. The 1.14 million hectare passage is extremely rich in marine biodiversity, the richest area in the entire Coral Triangle. It is famous for its scientifically-backed title as the Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity and as the Center of the Center of the Marine Biodiversity of the World. Various conservation groups have been pushing for its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The eponymous Verde Island, located right in the center of the strait, is one of the best diving places in the Philippines due to its pristine clear waters and nice under water view. Daily trips for scuba divers are made from Puerto Galera. Sites such as in Puerto Galera offers diving for all types of people from amateur to professional divers. the diving depth is very deep.
The wreckage of a Spanish galleon that sunk in 1620 was found in the southern part of this passage. Most of the ancient cargo was salvaged from the wreckage in the late seventies and again in the early 80s. Nothing remains of the wreck except for a few shards of porcelain and some larger pieces of terracotta jars. The keel was removed to Puerto Galera for conservation. The conservation was not properly carried out and the remaining timbers were left to rot at a depth of 6 meters in front of Sabang Beach.
A team of marine conservationists declared in 2006 that the Philippines is the Center of Marine Biodiversity in the world and Verde Island Passage as the "Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity".
Many threatened species which include sea turtles like hawksbills, olive ridleys, and green turtles; humphead wrasses, giant groupers and giant clams are present in the Verde Island Passage. However, there are no enforcement of ordinances and over-fishing is common. A short-lived 'park fee' scheme for the Verde Island drop-off dive site was soon dropped when it was discovered that the revenue was being used to buy better fishing gear and hence removing fish at a higher rate. Humphead wrasses are especially threatened and divers often go years without spotting a single individual. It was particularly noted the rare red fin wrasse (Cirrhilabrus rubripinnis) thrives in Verde Island.
There is a complete moratorium of all types of fishing in the Batangas Bays and around Mindoro island. The fish sold in the markets of Puerto Galera comes from distance places such as Romblon. This is a very healthy sign for the development of the marine diversity and thanks for the municipal councils that administer the fishing ban. However, destructive fishing practices continue in other parts of the strait that should soon be brought under control.
The other main contributor to sustained marine diversity is the damage caused by commercial vessels and other ferries using the passage on a daily basis. It is common that commercial vehicles discharge various pollutants into the waters on which the municipalities and other local bodies have no control. In stormy times, large vehicles are seen anchoring to the corals in the area causing damage to them. The conservation message has to be put cross to major commercial shipping lines and the crews need to be educated on the diversity of the Verde Passage and the dire need for its protection. there are other major issues that affect the sustainability of the Verde Passage. The heavy use of agro-chemicals (pesticides and chemical fertilizer) in the up-stream of Batangas River and the resultant wash off down the river and finally into the Batangas Bays is a serious issue that warrants attention. The discharge of urban waste and grey water in Puerto Galera and other urban areas into the numerous bays around the passage is yet another major issue. The treatment of grey water and septic effluent is not practiced which is a huge concern. The growing tourism aggravates this problem.
The area has more than 300 species of corals, which is considered one of the largest concentrations of corals in the country, or possibly, the whole world. Coral health is generally good, though the effects of global warming and increased pollution, may still lead to a drop in diversity. The Verde Island passage is located next to Batangas Bay which is rapidly becoming a major refining and petrol chemical center in the Philippines. Until now, no infrastructure is in place to contain a major oil, or chemical spill.
Though the Passage is recognized for its marine diversity, there is hardly any information on this aspect available to tourists. There are no sign boards or any other public educational material available to tourists and the locals. Among several beach and marine users the author interviewed, only a very small number are aware of the diversity and the need for protection of this strait. It is amazing to witness that all organisations such as boat owners/operators, hoteliers, diver association, restaurant and bar association, etc. are fully engaged in regular beach and marine cleaning especially around Oriental Mindoro. Thanks to this action that has resulted in clean beaches and marine eco-system.