Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

An ecological assessment of Ulugan Bay, Palawan, Philippines, CSI info 12

Biophysical and social settings

Ulugan Bay covers an area of approximately 71 km2, and is located slightly north of the geographical centre of the 450 km-long island of Palawan, the main land mass of the westernmost province of the Philippines. Palawan lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, and is orientated in a northeast-southwesterly direction, surrounded by more than a thousand smaller islands and islets (see Figure 1).

Ulugan Bay itself can be visualized as a deep indentation in Palawan’s fairly straight South China Sea coastline. The southern tip of Ulugan Bay marks the narrowest point of the island.

Aerial view of Ulugan Bay and Rita Island

The area around the bay is flat, consisting of alluvial material, sandstone and shale. The coastal plain does not extend more than a few kilometres inland before rising steeply to form a rugged hinterland. In the lowland areas, the forest cover has been largely cleared for agriculture and settlement; however, the mid to upper slopes still retain extensive areas of secondary and primary forest. Eleven relatively small rivers drain Ulugan Bay’s catchment area.

Palawan experiences a tropical/monsoon climate. It is subject to the influence of tropical depressions but only occasionally experiences typhoons, the northern area being the most prone. However, in December 1998, after the resource assessment exercise was conducted, the most severe typhoon in memory struck the Ulugan Bay area, causing extensive damage to the forests and coral reefs, including those off the coast at Sabang.

In terms of floral and faunal regimes, the island of Palawan resembles its giant neighbour to the south, Borneo, more than it does the other main islands of the Philippines. Ulugan Bay claims international recognition for its natural environment. Home to an estimated 50% of the province’s mangrove forests and to 15% of the total mangrove cover of the Philippines, the bay’s mangrove resources alone merit global attention. However, Ulugan Bay also harbours extensive seagrass beds and coral reefs, as well as abundant fish and other marine fauna.

Traditional means of transportation of the local and 
indigenous communities

Five rural communities – ‘barangays’ in Philippine administrative terminology – surround Ulugan Bay. Proceeding clockwise from the northeastern tip of the bay, the communities are Cabayugan, Tagabenit, Buenavista, Macarascas, and Bahile. Fishing is the main livelihood of the approximately 6,000 inhabitants of the villages in the bay’s barangays; agriculture comes a close second. In the mangrove areas, fisher folk harvest the abundant shrimps, crabs, oysters and other shellfish, while the coral reefs and deeper waters are home to a wide range of commercially valuable fish species.

A survey conducted in 1998 by the Coastal Environment Program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) shows that agricultural land in Ulugan Bay produces rice, coconuts, cashews, peanuts, corn and a variety of fruit and vegetables. Particularly for the inhabitants of Cabayugan, tourism is growing in importance as an alternative source of income. This barangay is close to the best-known tourist attraction of Palawan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, and includes the township of Sabang, also experiencing its tourism development.

Population growth in Ulugan Bay is significant to the extent that, over the next twelve years, the population is expected to increase by as much as 60%. While fishing and agriculture provide a steady income for most inhabitants, social problems and hardships do exist. In a recent survey, 388 children in Ulugan Bay were found to be suffering from malnourishment (Rivera-Guieb, 1999).

Due to its strategic location, its wealth of resources and its natural beauty, Ulugan Bay is a place of great significance to a very wide range of interests. To each interest group, indeed to each individual, the bay signifies something distinct and personal.

For the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the bay is a point of extreme strategic importance in terms of national security. In military terms, Ulugan Bay is the only significant indentation on Palawan’s South China Sea coastline, and is within easy reach of the often-disputed Spratly Islands group. Oyster Bay, a bay within Ulugan Bay, offers a near-perfect natural harbour for military purposes. At the moment, to the consternation of the coastal inhabitants, there is a proposal that the bay become home to a naval base. However, with a more comprehensive definition of ‘national security’ now prevailing in military circles, and with the emphasis on the role of ecological balance being in the best interest of Filipinos, there might be hope for a functional co-existence among all the stakeholders in the bay, including the military.

To the fisher folk of Palawan, Ulugan Bay and its surrounding waters represent a fishing ground and nursery of unequalled significance and, to some, a place to secure a quick profit.

To the tourist, Ulugan Bay is neighbour to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, the primary tourist attraction of Palawan and a World Heritage Site. It is an unexplored wilderness of pristine mangroves and corals, hidden and secluded beaches, and coves. It is a place the passing traveller can view in wonder, at a distance, on their way to other established tourist destinations. To conservationists and eco-tourists, Ulugan Bay is a site of spectacular scenery and home to the best-preserved mangrove forests of the Philippines, as well as to a magnificent variety of coral reefs, seagrasses, fish and water birds.

But most important of all, to its some 6,000 inhabitants, Ulugan Bay is home. Let us reiterate here a key point – the sustainable livelihood of the local population remains the focus of the project’s activities in Ulugan Bay.


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