Officials are racing against time to refloat the Princess of the Stars, which capsized on 21 June, amid concern that the toxic cargo inside its hold could leak and destroy the marine ecosystem around Sibuyan island, considered to be among the most diverse in the country.
Fishermen have been banned from their trade, and with their livelihoods at least temporarily curtailed, their families are vulnerable to hunger.
The doomed ferry sailed into the deadly path of Typhoon Fengshen on 21 June. After being battered by huge waves it listed to its side and capsized with more than 800 people aboard. Dozens of bodies have been found, although hundreds are still believed trapped inside.
The government launched a massive underwater operation with the help of US Navy divers to try to retrieve the bodies, but the search was called off after it was discovered the ship was carrying a huge cargo of endosulfan, a toxic pesticide banned in some countries, including the United States.
Marine biologist Emmanuel Asis, the provincial fisheries director in the region, said there was an "urgent need" to remove the toxic substance from the ship, as it risked destroying the marine life in the area. "This will have a direct impact on the marine ecosystem in the area," Asis told IRIN.
The impact is already being felt, with fishermen such as Walden Royo, 50, left with no choice but to beg for food for his four children.
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
|Catholic priests hold a memorial service on the shores of Sibuyan island for the victims of a sunken ferry laden with a toxic cargo (background)|
"We survived the typhoon, and were luckier than those aboard the ferry. But the tragedy that is now the nation's focus is also slowly killing us," Royo said as he drydocked his small motorised boat on the shores of Espana, an impoverished fishing village of about 600 families, which was devastated by the typhoon.
"What about us? When will we be able to go to the sea again and catch? Our children too, need to eat and we need to earn something for them to go to school," he said.
Roberto Naiya, 37, says he wonders why the government has dragged its feet in trying to refloat the sunken ferry and tow it away from Sibuyan's fishing grounds, which for generations have fed his ancestors and provided a livelihood.
"Now we are hungry. There is enough rice in the market," he said, "but we don't have money to buy it. The only thing we had was fish, but now even that we are barred from catching."
His two young children and wife left their small house to hunt for freshwater fish and shrimp in the nearby Cantingas river, which connects to the bay of Sibuyan. But they caught only enough to tide them over for the night.
Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, who visited the wreck site with President Gloria Arroyo to check on relief operations, said government scientists were testing water samples every 12 hours and stressed that so far the toxic cargo remained sealed.
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
|Philippine President Gloria Arroyo confers with USS Reagan commander Rear Admiiral James Wisecup on the sidelines of a memorial service for victims of a sunken ferry laden with a toxic cargo in Sibuyan island, Philippines|
"What is sure is the fact that the cargo remains very much secure, although of course it poses a danger. We have seen pictures of how it is packed, and it is sealed in double plastic containers."
He said additional deliveries of relief goods, including rice, would be fast-tracked, and urged fishermen to be patient as officials tried to address the problem. The Philippine Red Cross and the National Disaster Coordinating Council are leading the relief effort, but the remoteness of the island is making it difficult to properly address needs. Ferry services are intermittent at best, and there is no air transport service.
"There are issues of liabilities here of course, but there is also an issue of the movement of goods, people and cargo," Yap said, adding that the ferry firm, Sulpicio Lines, has been given permission to resume cargo handling operations but not passenger transport. He said the firm controlled about 40 percent of the cargo shipping industry in the central Philippines, and it would hurt the local economy if cargo transport were suspended long term.
But for fishermen like Royo and Naiya, time is running out. "When will they begin to realise that we need to fish?" he asked. "When our children are already dead?"