By Lu-Ann Fuentes-Bajarias
In time for World Wetlands Day on February 2—celebrated to raise global awareness about the high importance of wetlands for people and planet—results on the annual Asian Waterbird Census in Manila Bay were shared with the public. The January 2021 count tallied 110,000 waterbirds, and of the 60 species observed, over two-thirds are migratory birds from as far away as Siberia and Alaska. All are dependent on wetlands for their survival. Flagged was a continued decline of nearly 20% since 2019, or a shortfall of 25,000 birds over just two years.
The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), in collaboration with Wetlands International Philippines Program and IUCN Netherlands Committee, assisted the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Regions III, IV-A and NCR in the Asian Waterbird Census in Manila Bay. This was part of the International Waterbird Count which Wetlands International coordinates globally in January every year. First organized in 1967, the census covers over a hundred countries, making it one of the largest and longest-running biodiversity monitoring programs in the world.
The counts included the Provinces of Bataan (Balanga), Pampanga (Pasac and Pampanga River), Bulacan (the coastal wetlands of Sta. Cruz, Pamarawan, Caliligawan, Bambang, and Taliptip), Cavite (Imus River mouth and Noveleta), and the National Capital Region-NCR (Valenzuela fishponds, Tanza mudflats and Parañaque Wetlands Park). In addition, a bird count was undertaken in Candaba Marsh.
Manila Bay, a clear candidate for protection of waterbirds but less than 1% is protected
Of the 60 species listed in the Manila Bay census, no less than 15 species were present in internationally important numbers. Recorded onsite were 30,000 individuals or almost 30% of the Whiskered Terns breeding in Chinese wetlands; and around 7,000 or 7% of the Pacific Golden Plovers, 6,000 or 5% Kentish Plovers, and nearly 6,000 or 6% Marsh Sandpipers of their respective populations found in East Asia.
“Manila Bay hosts the highest number of waterbirds of any Philippine wetlands yet it has less than 200 hectares protected and with a mountain of threats to its habitats and birds,” said Arne Jensen, Wetlands International Associate Expert and WBCP records committee chair.
“With 87% or about 95,000 waterbirds present in Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan, it would not be an exaggeration to say North Manila Bay is one of the last Philippine wetlands refuge. At the shallow coastal waters, tidal flats and sandbars to man-made salt beds and fishponds, about 37,000 shorebirds and 37,000 terns were counted together with 23,000 gulls and 15,000 egrets. Coastal fisherfolks and waterbirds alike all depend on the different types of wetlands found in the Bay,” said Jensen.
With habitat loss, waterbird populations decline annually
The recorded decline in number of waterbirds since 2019 is not evenly distributed across the provinces. Most severe is the decline of long-distance shorebirds in Bulacan and gulls in the Pampanga rivers. These mirror reductions in tidal flats as their feeding habitats.
“In contrast, there was an increase in waterbird presence by more than 100% representing just about 12,000 birds in NCR, mostly at the tidal mudflats in Tanza, Navotas. However, these are now being reclaimed, signaling what is to come in Bulacan, Cavite and other areas,” said Jensen.
Without protection, further biodiversity loss can be projected in Manila Bay
Many of the waterbirds in Manila Bay are threatened as their populations decline annually due to loss of their feeding wetland habitats across their flyway. “In Manila Bay in the past four years alone, four of its just 10 critical wetland sites of national or international importance are being lost due to development such as airport development, reclamation and, increasingly, removal of mudflats and shallow areas as dredging has now become commercialized,” said Mike Lu, President of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.
“The massive reclamation masterplans of the Philippine Reclamation Authority, and the approach of the Department of Public Works and Highways to flood mitigation that includes coastal embankment involving the provinces from Bataan to Cavite would destroy the whole ecosystem of Manila Bay. Reclamation should be stopped and the PRA and DPWH be reorganized for restoration and climate change adaptation to support global and national policies to implement nature-based solutions that maintain the wild birds habitats while also protecting people,” added Lu.
More species are being added to the threatened list meanwhile. In Manila Bay, 14 species are now either near threatened or directly threatened with extinction, lost forever in the world. The most threatened species include the iconic Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor), Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa), Asian Dowicher (Limnodromus semipalmatus), and Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis).
Are wetlands wastelands?
According to Dr. Annadel Cabanban, Head of Wetlands International Philippines, wetlands have traditionally been viewed as wastelands or sick lands, little more than breeding grounds for mosquitos, and available for coastal development and land reclamation. “This misperception on the function of wetlands has dramatically reduced the amount and quality of habitat available to waterbirds. As the demand for water, land and food increases, wetlands have become the ecosystem most in decline in the world and the decline is worst in Asia. Counting waterbirds allows us to see whether a wetland is under threat,” said Cabanban.
“Waterbird monitoring is the foundation for managing and understanding wetlands. It has helped species and populations that were once in serious decline make remarkable recoveries in other countries, but not yet in the Philippines—that challenge and opportunity remain, to act given the inseparable connection of wetlands, water, and our wellbeing,” said Jensen.