Photos show Manila Bay mangroves ‘choked’ by plastic pollution | Philippines

Jhere are stray and abandoned flip flops, old aluminum food wrappers, crumpled plastic bags and discarded water bottles. The mudflats and mangroves of Navotas in Manila Bay are buried under a thick layer of detritus.

It “almost suffocates the roots of the mangrove,” said Diuvs de Jesus, a marine biologist in the Philippines who photographed the area on a recent visit.

Wetlands have enormous environmental importance. They are an essential feeding ground for migratory birds, provide protection against flooding and help fight climate change by absorbing much higher levels of carbon dioxide than mountain forests.

Navotas mudflats and mangroves are in a terrible state. Photo: Divus of Jesus

Plastic pollution, however, could devastate the region. Mangroves have special roots, called pneumatophores, “a kind of snorkel that helps them breathe when the sea water rises,” says Janina Castro, a member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and a wetland conservation advocate. Plastic can smother pneumatophores, weaken and potentially kill trees.

The mudflats and mangroves are already some of the last of their kind in Manila Bay, an area that was once lined with lush green shrubs and trees. Manila is believed to be named after Nilad, a stemmed rice plant that produces white flowers and once thrived along the coast. By the end of the 19th century, there were as many as 54,000 hectares of mangrove wetlands along the bay, according to a estimate quoted by Pemsea, a regional marine protection partnership coordinated by the United Nations. By 1995, this area had fallen to less than 800 hectares.

Today, Manila, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is more likely to be associated with traffic jams than thriving mangroves.

“If only we banned single-use plastics, it would significantly reduce waste,” De Jesus said. He also worries about the looming threat of reclamation – where coastlines are stretched outwards as rock, cement and earth are used to build new land into the sea.

Garbage scattered on the Navotas mudflats
The Navotas mud flats are part of the Manila Bay coastline. Photo: Divus of Jesus

The mangroves and mudflats of Navotas are vital to the survival of migratory birds that visit the Philippines as part of the East-Asian-Australasian Flyway – a route that stretches from Arctic Russia and North America to Australia and New Zealand.

A number of endangered birds have been spotted feeding and resting in the wetlands, including black-faced spoonbill, far eastern curlew and great knot. The critically endangered Christmas Island Frigatebird was also seen flying low over Navotas recently, Castro said.

Conservationists fear that plastic pollution will ultimately harm these species. It breaks down into microplastics, which can be eaten by fish and shellfish – and, therefore, also ingested by birds. It can also lead to a buildup of toxic chemicals and act as a disease vector, threatening birds and their prey, Castro said.

“A number of these species currently have ongoing conservation efforts in other countries, but these efforts should be reflected in all aggregation sites, including the Philippines,” Castro said.

There’s a misconception that mudflats aren’t as valuable or aesthetic as other types of wetlands, Castro said. But they play an important role in tourism, providing livelihoods and providing protection from the waves. “Educating the public about these benefits is critical to its survival,” she said.

Bryce K. Locke