MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines and the United States (US) on Tuesday reiterated their pledge to cooperate in investigating the cause of the grounding incident at the protected Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea, saying that both countries agreed that preventing further damage to the reef remained a top priority.
In a joint statement by the countries released on Tuesday, officials noted that in a meeting at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. reiterated the US’ assurances to “provide appropriate compensation for the damage to the reef caused by the ship.
The statement noted that since the grounding incident, representatives from the DFA, the Department of Justice (DoJ), the Department of Transportation and Communications (DoTC), the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), along with representatives of the US Navy and the U.S. Embassy had held a series of meetings to discuss the issue.
Various militant groups have urged the government to bring legal charges against US Navy officers and crew members of the USS Guardian, the 63-meter long minesweeper that ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef last January 17.
Reports had noted that the groups Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) and the Anakpawis party-list filed a letter of complaint to the DoJ, saying that that were was enough evidence “to enforce the arrest of US Navy officials and 79 crew members of USS Guardian for extremely violating the country’s sovereignty and laws.”
Reports had also noted how the groups lamented the government’s inaction “to pursue their arrest and demand accountability from them.”
The joint statement, meanwhile, noted that during the meeting, the Philippine officials conveyed to the US representatives that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) had started its independent inquiry into the grounding incident.
“The Philippine Coast Guard formed the Maritime Casualty Investigation Team (MCIT) in accordance with its standard procedures and resolutions of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on serious maritime incidents to establish the circumstances and causes of the grounding on Tubbataha Reef and to formulate safety measures to prevent a repetition of this incident,” the statement said.
“In the meeting, the two governments agreed to cooperate during investigations of the grounding incident,” the statement added.
The US embassy in Manila had also said that it would conduct “a number of other activities” to underscore its commitment to Tubbataha’s recovery and the protection of the marine resources of the Philippines.”
It had said that a separate US interdisciplinary scientific team was being formed to “initiate discussions” and coordinate with Philippine government agencies such as the Tubbataha Management Office, non-governmental organizations, and Philippine-based marine scientists and experts to “review and assess damage remediation options.”
The embassy noted that the US would grant P4.1 million or $100,000 to a Philippine university to support coral restoration research at the reef.
It said that in the next two weeks, the embassy would organize a round-table discussion with local coral reef conservation experts to listen to concerns and discuss options for conservation and restoration of the reef.
“Invitees to this discussion will include entities such as USAID, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), relevant Government of the Philippines agencies, and the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO),” it had earlier said.
The US Navy had also said that it had presented to the PCG its plan to dismantle the minesweeper and remove it in sections from the marine sanctuary. It had said the operation would utilize floating cranes to minimize damage to the world heritage site.
Latest reports had noted that from an initial estimate of 1,000 square meters, the damaged area has been pegged at 4,000 square meters.
“It is expected that the start of the salvage operation will be announced shortly. In the meantime, the United States is coordinating closely with PCG in the salvage operation to extract the USS Guardian from the reef,” the joint statement said.