Annie Perez

Published: April 25, 2023

This story was supported by Climate Tracker and Break Free From Plastics

Where earlier shellfish used to cling on to mangroves, fisherman Venerando Carbon said plastics now hang on the branches in Southern Cebu’s Barangay Japitan, in Barili town.

This area falls in the 5,182 square kilometers of Tañon Strait, the Philippines’ largest protected seascape, a region abundant with seafood that fishermen like Carbon catch and sell for a living.

Moreover, it also houses dolphins, whales, sharks, manta rays, and many rare species.

Carbon is worried that they will one day lose their livelihood which depends upon marine life.

“The fish, shellfish, and sea grass would die in the ocean, along with the food. And we, fisherfolks, depend on these for our livelihood,” he shared.

He is just one of the many fisherfolks who is facing a threat in their everyday life because of plastics.

Invisible Danger

In a study done by Dr. Maria Kristina Paler from the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, the issue at hand is not just visible plastic but also microplastics.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as small plastic pieces with a size of fewer than five millimeters long or the same size as a sesame seed. These are disintegrated from plastic debris thrown to the ocean. They could also be microbeads, tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic used as exfoliants for health and beauty products.

Microplastics are often consumed by marine animals, as they believe it to be their food. When they are ingested by humans, it may cause oxidative stress, cytotoxicity, neurotoxicity and immune system disruption.

They are consumed by marine animals, as they believe it to be their food; even for bottom feeders. These are creatures that feed at the lowest part of the ocean.

Paler found the presence of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tract of rabbit fishes sourced from the Tañon Strait, with traces of polyester, polyethylene, polyamide and phenoxy resin. These are all chemicals used in plastics.

This type of fish, locally called “danggit” is abundant in the area. It is also considered a staple.

“Unfortunately, the Tanon Strait is heavily threatened by exploitative fishing activities and threats of solid waste pollution. Yet, fishery within this municipal water remains a major direct and indirect livelihood for a large proportion of the populace,” Paler explained.

She concludes that there will be an exponential increase of microplastics in the strait if the overexploitation of the marine environment continues, specifically overharvesting algae and continued disposal of plastics in the ocean.

“If not systematically studied, the risks associated with microplastic pollution via fish may be ignored,” she added.

The Philippines, in general, lives in a “sachet culture” where Filipinos patronize small portions of products packaged in small sachets.

In fact, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives conducted a survey in 2019 and found out that this nation uses more than 163 million plastic sachet packets, 48 million shopping bags, and 45 million thin film bags daily.

A portion of this does not go to open dumps or incinerators but to the sea.

Save Cebu Movement

Because of this alarming situation, several Cebuanos have grouped together to bring back Tañon Strait’s glory.

The Philippine Earth Justice Center Incorporated launched the “Save Cebu Movement” in November last year, 2022 where they tapped local government units and the youth sector to nudge them to ban single-use plastics.

Along with them are fisherfolk and community leaders, civil society organizations, environmental advocacy groups, partners in academia, legal aid, youth and school-based organizations, business groups, lawyers, and concerned citizens.

They utilize legal procedures under the laws to ensure that their projects not only comply with the legal standards but also do not impair the rights of the people, the communities, and the environment.

A notable campaign was called ‘#WayPlastikay Cebu’ which translates to “No Plastics, Cebu”.

“It is basically a call to avoid single-use plastics, a campaign that we bring to schools and other institutions. To get a commitment on the ban,” said Attorney Kristine Argallon, the group’s legal and policy officer.

This movement strongly opposes environmentally destructive dump-and-fill projects that may contribute to the increase of microplastics around the waters of Cebu.

“We make sure that violators of the various laws face administrative, civil, or criminal liability,” added Argallon.

There is no membership to this campaign and their members voluntarily monitor the seascape that they remain to be protected.

Other members extend support either in terms of other resources, like logistics, social media, and manpower, among others.

By far, they have signed commitments and partnerships to the implementation of the ban on single-use plastics with towns such as Dumanjug in Southern Cebu and Asturias in the North.

They admit, there is still much to be done.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has sat down multiple times with the Protected Area Management Board to discuss long-term solutions to the microplastic problem. This included further research, sample collection and consultative workshops.

“There is an urgency to address this environmental threat,” DENR-7 statement read.

Carbon and his fellow fisherfolks hope that many will carry on the ‘Save Cebu Movement’ while it is not too late.

In their own way, they also initiate clean-up drives along the coasts.

“We hope that the leaders in government would move since we trusted them,” he said.

He wishes that every person who would heed the call to save Cebu and the Tañon Strait, they would understand and share the effect on food security if single-use plastics continue to be patronized.

“This is for the youth who will inherit this,” he said as parting message.