SPECIAL REPORT: Microplastics from plastic trash choke Sarangani Bay

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 29 September) – Sarangani Bay, a protected seascape known for its rich biodiversity, is being threatened by waste pollution: traces of microplastic particles have been confirmed to be present in fish, mollusks and beach sediments across the 215,950-hectare coast.

Screengrab from a multimedia presentation of Professor Julius Mingoc, a marine biologist, shows the extent of garbage floating in the heart of Sarangani Bay.

Kilometers-long patches of waste, including single-use plastics, have been documented accumulating in several portions of the bay since 2018. Single-use plastics are popular among low-income households because products packaged using them, such as toothpaste and coffee in sachets, are very cheap. Five pesos can buy a sachet of shampoo at the friendly sari-sari (mom-and-pop) store.

“Portions of Sarangani Bay look like an ugly dumpsite. The longest patch I saw might be two kilometers long,” Professor Julius Mingoc, a faculty member of the College of Fisheries at Mindanao State University – General Santos City campus, told MindaNews.

Sarangani Bay is a known tourist hotspot in this part of the country. It has stretches of white sandy beaches, with some parts described as world-class diving spots. Before the lockdowns brought about by COVID-19 started in mid-March 2020, it hosted the annual Sarangani Bay Festival, the biggest organized beach party in Mindanao.

However, the charm and the bounty of the bay may suffer a big blow if waste collection is not properly addressed, according to Mingoc.

Protected seascape

Sarangani Bay was proclaimed a protected seascape 25 years ago through a 1996 Presidential Proclamation issued by then-President Fidel Ramos, to conserve its marine resources for the benefit of future generations. The bay straddles the towns of Glan, Malapatan, Alabel, Maasim, Kiamba and Maitum in Sarangani province and the chartered city of General Santos.

Records from the Sarangani Bay Protected Seascape (SBPS) show that the bay hosts a rich biodiversity of fish, sea turtles, corals, seagrasses and mangroves. It is home to threatened species such as dugongmameng (Napoleon wrasse) and four kinds of marine turtles (hawksbill, olive ridley, loggerhead and green sea turtle). Across the bay are at least 411 reef species.

Local tourists have fun in the crystal clear waters of a beach resort in Glan, along Sarangani Bay. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Dolphins, whales, sun fish, giant clams and shore birds are also present in Sarangani Bay, on which thousands of fisherfolk depend for their livelihood. The bay is abundant with pelagic fish species such as bilong-bilong (Mene maculata), matambaka (Selar crumenophthalmus), bolinao (Encrasicholina punctifer), bangsi (Cypselurus opisthopus) and sambagon (Katsuwonus pelamis).

Joy Ologuin, SBPS superintendent, noted that populations of marine mammals and sharks in Sarangani Bay have remained relatively healthy despite the heavy trash pollution, and that whales, sharks and dolphins are regularly recorded during monitoring in the bay.

“The sightings of the marine mammals indicate that the ecosystem of the bay is still healthy. These fishes keep on coming back. It’s also probable that some of them are already residents of the bay,” she told MindaNews.

She stressed, however, that the garbage problem is a growing threat to marine life.

“The floating plastic garbage poses a threat to fishes present in Sarangani Bay, as they could mistake these wastes as food,” she said.

She believes that the siltation and garbage polluting Sarangani Bay could be originating from the 10 tributaries draining to the bay. Nearby coastal communities could also be the source of single-use plastics that have settled in deeper sea waters.

Last year SBPS and other concerned government agencies conducted a clean-up at the waters off Sarangani Bay, but the trash keeps returning due to improper waste disposal by residents around the bay.

The scenic Sarangani Bay. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

Microplastics

Microplastics are plastic fragments smaller than five millimeters, which can be mistaken by sea creatures for food.

Mingoc explains that when microplastic particles are eaten by fish and accumulate in their gut over time, they can feel permanently full, thus stunting their growth and eventually leading to death. This, in turn, affects the fish population as the fish die before they can reproduce.

“We have found traces of microplastics in several parts of Sarangani Bay, obviously from plastic wastes. Single-use plastics, fishing ropes and polystyrene products degrade into microplastic particles,” Mingoc said.

Microplastics can bioaccumulate from small fish up the food chain to top predators such as whales and sharks, affecting their internal organs, Mingoc stressed. He added that microplastics also pose a danger to corals, which could mistake them for planktons. “If corals, which serve as spawning ground for fishes, ingest microplastics, it can infect and eventually kill them.”

In a research conducted between 2018 and 2019 across Sarangani Bay, Mingoc and students from MSU-GenSan’s College of Fisheries established, by analyzing the gut of several marine animals, that microplastic particles have become part of the food chain of marine life in the bay.

The team found that 9.53 microplastic particles were present in every 100 grams of wild parrotfish gut; while the number of microplastic particles found in 10 grams of yellowfin tuna, skipjack tuna and spotted rabbit fish guts were 2.39, 1.98 and 1.05 respectively.

Two out of 10 cockle shells (Cerastoderma edule) in Sarangani Bay were also found to contain at least 1.38 microplastic particles, while the same number of marsh clams (Polymesoda expansa) contained at least 1.39 microplastic particles.

Broadly speaking, the study found that 1,084 microplastic particles can be found.

Dead sea grasses are washed ashore at a beach resort in Glan, along Sarangani Bay. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

In every cubic meter of surface coastal or beach sediments in the bay.

These microplastics might not only affect marine life, however. “Eating seafoods that contain microplastic particles may pose (a) hazard to human health,” Mingoc said.

He noted that scientists are still figuring out if microplastics could pose a substantial health risk to humans. “There’s no conclusive studies yet if these microplastics are really harmful to humans. What is clear is that microplastics can get into the human system through contaminated fish or shellfish from our seas.”

Coastal garbage woes

The shoreline along Purok 8-A in Barangay Poblacion, a community of some 800 households in the town of Malapatan, Sarangani province, is littered with different types of waste – consumer products wrapped using single-use plastics, cans and broken branches.

“The garbage pollution in our coastline is a long-time recurring problem,” Rosabelle Salomeri told MindaNews. Even with repeated information campaigns on proper waste disposal, there are still households throwing trash at the shoreline, she added.

Salomeri, who has been living with her family in the community for 30 years, said intermittent flooding due to heavy rains had been compounding their garbage problem, as waste is washed out to sea. She cannot count the number of times that the local government unit, the Philippine Coast Guard and other civic groups, along with concerned community members, had conducted coastal clean-ups to address the garbage woes.

Besides microplastics, Mingoc pointed out that plastics also pose a great danger to sea turtles and even corals, as the former can also mistake plastics for food and get entangled by them, while large plastic sacks that sink and cover corals will gradually kill the latter.

Garbage litter the shorelines in Barangay Poblacion, Malapatan, along Sarangani Bay. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

To date, the Philippines does not have a law banning the use of single-use plastics, although a new bill which will phase out the production, import and sale of many single-use plastics was approved by the House of Representatives in July.

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, hailed the passage of House Bill No. 9147, or the Single-Use Plastic Products Regulation Act, and urged the Senate to pass a similar measure.

Continued education campaign

Marine biologist Mingoc believes that there should be a strict implementation of policies on proper waste segregation and disposal, and continued education campaigns to address the garbage problem in the shorelines and the waters within Sarangani Bay.

He was apparently referring to the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which provides the framework for solid waste management programs in the country. The act also mandates the establishment of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in every village or cluster of villages. MRFs convert biodegradable waste into fertilizer, collect recyclable material to be recycled or sold to junk shops, and collect residual waste for transport to sanitary landfills.

Mingoc also suggested the adoption of good practices to prevent Sarangani Bay from deteriorating, including the replacement of single-use plastics with more degradable materials. As a model, he cited Indonesia, where seaweeds are being used as biodegradable packaging for consumer products.

Professor Julius Mingoc, a faculty member of the College of Fisheries at the Mindanao State University – General Santos City, discusses the dangers posed by microplastics to the marine life of Sarangani Bay. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Admittedly, replacing single-use plastic products with environmentally friendly biodegradable materials will be a tall order for manufacturers, Mingoc noted. But consumers also play a key role in keeping Sarangani Bay clean of garbage – whether on the shorelines or off its coastal waters.

“We must have discipline. As humans, we have a huge responsibility towards the environment. We are all stewards. If we abuse the environment, it surely will get back to us in one form or another,” he stressed.

Ologuin echoed his sentiments, noting the need for behavioral change, especially among the adults.

“Actually, it is easier to train children to dispose of their trash properly. But for adults, it is difficult – many still throw their trash anywhere even if there’s a designated trash can nearby,” she lamented.

She called on everyone around Sarangani Bay to join coastal clean-ups or to voluntarily pick up trash littering the shorelines or in the streets, to prevent the garbage from being washed up deeper to the ocean. The SBPS carried out a coastal clean-up around Sarangani Bay on 18 September, International Coastal Clean-up Day.

Addressing garbage pollution is everyone’s concern and not just of the government or the private sector, said Ologuin, who urged the public to dispose of their trash properly as their noble contribution to the environment.

[This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).]

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