7 Minute Read

Shellfishing in Manila Bay and open source datasets

Inquiro Posted on May 9, 2024

“It is a rather large building, in the style of many in the country, and fronts upon the arm of the Pasig which is known to some as the Binondo River, and which, like all the streams in Manila, plays the varied rôles of bath, sewer, laundry, fishery, means of transportation and communication, and even drinking water if the Chinese water-carrier finds it convenient.” – Noli Me Tangere (by José Rizal, translation by Charles Derbyshire, 1912)


It’s the middle of May 2021, and my sister invited me to go shellfishing just off the coast of Hagonoy Bulacan. I had nothing prepared for the weekend, so I said, “Yes, I’ll go” – and I did. The fishing spot was a small mangrove island about an hour of boat ride away from her place. In the distance, the mangrove “forest” appears about a kilometer away from any human infrastructure. It stretches perpendicular to the coastline, running so far out into the sea that I thought it was an island, and for lack of a better term, I will continue to call it that. As we arrived, the boat was tied against one of the trees – and the kids, bored from the hour-long trip, started jumping one by one into the murky water with blissful excitement. I took my time to take this in, to process where I was and what I was doing. We are in the middle of a pandemic, a year locked in our homes, and there I was, maskless and exposed, swimming in knee-deep water, skin to skin with my family, along with a few strangers a couple of miles away from home. Before realizing what I wanted to do, which was to catch some shellfish, the kids already caught about a handful. “Okay, if the kids can find that many that fast, I should be able to find at least a dozen,” I thought. And boy, was I wrong. You see, to catch these shellfish, you must step on them, feeling their hard shell against your foot, burrowing on the black sand. And do you know what else has shells? Crabs. Which are like spiders but with claws. I call them pincer spiders; you can barely see them through muddy waters. I was lucky I didn’t get my toes chopped off, but a few of my nephews learned about the crabs in these waters the hard way. Fortunately, they were too small to cause actual harm.


As I tried to find my first catch, I saw my dad in the distance. He is 65 but still strong enough to swim in deeper waters. On the other hand, I am 22 years old and still don’t know how to float. I remember he told stories about shellfishing in the Tullahan River when he was just a young boy in the 70s. The river stretches from the mountains of La Mesa Dam, covering 27 km before it empties into Manila Bay. The river is called Tullahan, and “tulya” refers to some kind of clam. My dad told me they were so incredibly abundant in the river that it was a staple food for the townspeople living along the water. I think the water then was clean – like a painting full of life, says my dad. Men are catching fish, kids swimming in the background, and women doing laundry. Fast forward just a few decades and the river is almost uninhabitable, littered with trash and waste, with remains of dead animals occasionally seen floating with the current. I know this first hand as we used to live there – illegally, among thousands of other people too poor to afford decent housing. That was a decade ago, and what I recall the most was not the filthy smell or the patches of garbage drifting downstream but fear. The fear of the river overflowing during heavy rains or typhoons. The fear that one day, our whole family will be swept. The fear of the river’s vengeance – after years of our neglect and indifference to its suffering.


After about 10 minutes of searching, I felt a clamshell under my foot. I ensured it wasn’t a crab, then leaned down to scoop it with my right hand. The shell was empty; well, it was full of sand, yet it gave me hope that the next one might be the one. I took a couple of steps forward, stopping when I felt something and kicking some sand to scare off any non-shellfish creatures. The water remains turbid and cloudy, so the only way to identify if you caught a shellfish is to lift it out of the water. After a couple of rocks, empty shells, and dead wood. I stepped on something which was shaped like a clam. Anticipating it was just another empty shell, I wasn’t excited. By this point, I don’t think I will ever find anything interesting. I grabbed the clam-shaped object and lifted it out of the water, and to my surprise, it wasn’t anything I expected to see on a remote mangrove island kilometers away from the nearest shore. It was the head of a plastic spoon with a broken handle. I cannot remember my initial reaction; it’s probably along the lines of “That’s why it was heavy” or “Well, at least it wasn’t a pincer spider.” I threw it back into the water in frustration, and then it hit me. I’m off the coast of Bulacan; this is still Manila Bay.


We are dumping so much waste into the bay that sea currents potentially carried this spoon here. This mangrove isn’t safe at all. I remember my dad’s stories when he was a young boy, shellfishing in the Tullahan River, and how that same river is now dead. In the future, I will tell my children stories about me shellfishing in Bulacan and how clean it was until it wasn’t. A future generation of humans sharing stories upon stories on how incredible these places were back in their time. I felt so incredibly moved I tried to find the spoon again but to no avail. I want to find it not because I want to dispose of it in a proper bin but to keep it as a reminder. A reminder of humanity’s failure to protect the things that give it life. A reminder of seeing my dad still strong enough to swim with us. A reminder of how I found this place in my time. Soon, this patch of land could be free of shellfish or any marine life. Eventually, garbage and human waste will take over. But the stories we tell our children will live on.


I did catch one shellfish, and this time, it’s alive. I grabbed it with my foot, held it in my hand, and let it rest on my palm. As I gazed upon its outer shell, I told myself they were still here. We still have time to save these shellfish, we still have time to reverse our mistakes, and as we headed back home, shellfish tucked in hand, I was filled with hope.


This is a podcast script I wrote three years ago, inspired by John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. Since then, I have found out that the place is called Aroma Beach. The plastic spoon I found was also more likely to be trash from visitors to the mangrove and not from sea currents dragging it here. Climate change and the recent airport construction in Bulacan are bigger threats to this place; evident from the fact that there is no more beach to be seen.


I will leave you with a snapshot of a map showing the rivers and tributaries leading or near Manila Bay, alongside some images of the places referenced in this blog. Rendering the river required accessing the waterways dataset by HOTSOM under ODbL.


Left image is Aroma beach from a boat, courtesy of Mia Mendez vlog. Right image is Tullahan River courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The map contains information from Philippines Waterways (OpenStreetMap Export), which is made available here under the Open Database License (ODbL).


Inquiro utilizes open source data to supplement our own data to generate meaningful insight with the right context.


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