TACLOBAN CITY – The unfinished “shoreline protection project” of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) sticks like a sore thumb in the otherwise pristine panoramic view of Tacloban’s Cancabato Bay, a declared marine sanctuary but has now become the center of a debate between environmentalists and city planners.

From across the reclaimed area, fisherman Roque Regis, head of Paraiso Tacloban Fisherfolk Mangrove Eco Learning Service Cooperative, points at the place where they traditionally catch danggit and gather shellfish such as ponaw and tahong.

“This is our playground when we were kids in the ‘60s. All those who have lived here have stories to tell about Cancabato,” he said. “When there was no food on the table, my father would go out to fish and after a while he would be back with a catch that could feed us for at least two meals.”

Regis’ group runs the 10-hectare Paraiso Mangrove Eco Learning Park Marine and Wildlife Sanctuary, which has been one of the city’s attractions often visited by environmentalists, tourists and students who are doing research on marine environment.

For a fee of PHP 30.00, visitors can tour around a long boardwalk that cuts through the thick mangrove area that also serves as the feeding ground of various fish species of Cancabato Bay.

Not far from the mangrove park are three mariculture pens that raise bangus, which supply the Tacloban City fish market every day. Some of the daily catches here go as far as Calbayog City.

Every day, just before the sun sets, one could hear a distinct shout of counting to create a cadence as two dragon boats would race on the bay. They are members of Cancabato Wild Dragons, a local rowing club that also trains youngsters on dragon boat racing.

Near the Tacloban Astrodome, Palawan Cherry Blossoms, Philippine-version of the Japanese Sakura, line up the promenade providing shelter to those who want to catch a breeze of Cancabato Bay while marveling at the sight of seagrass on the bay. Here, one can oftentimes see children frolicking on the water and, farther away, marginal fisherfolk on small boats doping fishing using hook and line.

Indeed, for many Taclobanons, Cancabato Bay has played a significant role in their daily lives that the idea itself that the bay will soon be reclaimed and paved with cement evokes sentimental thoughts.

Reclamation plan

The city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan for 2017-2025 specifically mentions the plan to reclaim a big part of the 562.26 hectares Cancabato Bay and transform it into a state-of-the-art modern and booming financial district, which will be a combined commercial, financial, trading and business hub.

“It is an answer to the congested old city of Tacloban that mushroomed from the rubbles of World War II having gained the city status a few more years after the liberation period bereft of modern engineering planning. The engineering intervention only catches up with its growth and development,” the CLUP states.

“However, this time, the Cancabato Central Business District is an engineered and well-planned city extension that could be the business hub in the region at par with premier cities. It is the future district of trade and commerce, entertainment, and finance,” it added.

The city’s development plan has numerously described Cancabato as “heavily silted, poor biodiversity” and “dying biodiversity” to justify the need to reclaim it.

“Because of siltation, pollution and dying marine bio-diversity in the bay, it is envisioned that 400 ha. of the bay will be converted into a new central business district and the remaining 162.26 hectares will remain as a fish sanctuary area,” the plan states.

“It is a more economical, more prudent, more appropriate and more productive approach of the use of the portion of the bay as it ceased to be a viable fishing ground,” the CLUP further states.

Rich ecosystem

Marine scientists, environmentalists and climate change activists, however, are not convinced with the city’s assessment of the bay. On the contrary, they said the bay has a vibrant ecosystem capable of supporting the economic needs of over a thousand fishing families that are dependent on it.

Marine science expert Dr. Nancy Dayap, a professor at the University of the Philippines in Los Bańos, said the bay is teeming with marine life, “some are commercial and others are of ecosystem value.”

Dayap, who is a private sector representative to the Scientific Advisory Group of the Fisheries Management Area 8, has previously done an underwater topographic mapping of Cancabato Bay for the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources where she previously worked.

“If the reclamation happens, it will immediately affect the sea bottom where plenty of live sea organisms are found,” she said. She added that aside from assorted fishes, the bay is also rich in seagrass, which is considered one of the most efficient natural carbon sinks and helps mitigate climate change.

“Cancabato is not a dead bay, and it is not even dying,” she said. “We are asking the city government to show us a study that will say otherwise,” she said.

Dayap said that even if the government will not reclaim the whole bay and keep a small part of it as a marine sanctuary, the earth activities in the reclamation will still affect the remaining water due to the spread of particulates. “Murky water will affect the oxygen level affecting the fish and other marine organisms,” she said.

What worries her, too, are the thousands of fisherfolk families that are dependent on the bay for their livelihood. “Tacloban has over 3,000 registered fisherfolk. What alternative livelihood can you offer to them?” she asks.

In the aftermath of the onslaught of typhoon Yolanda that killed over a thousand residents living along the bay, families living within 40 meters from the shoreline were transferred to different permanent relocation sites in the northern district of the city.

However, hundreds of temporary shelters have remained or have sprouted along the long stretch of the bay’s coast as their main sources of livelihood are in the city.

“Fishing is the only job that I know. My father was a fisherman and same with my two brothers,” says 54-year-old Fredo. “If not for typhoon Yolanda, we would not have left here.”

Fredo’s family have transferred to a government housing project in Tacloban North but he and his siblings have maintained a house in San Jose district where they stay. He said he goes home every other day to bring money to his family.

He said the city government provided them with a fund to put up a sari-sari store in the housing village four years ago but the business did not stay long. Their neighbors were given the same seed money and most of them ended up setting a sari-sari store.

“I am not good at running a small business and fishing has always been my life. I am still hoping that the government will reconsider its plan,” he added. By Elmer Recuerdo (EV Mail May 1-7, 2023 issue)