The no-sail sign is clear on the maps, but there seems to be a beeline of vessels just waiting to get into Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
On Monday night, a Chinese fishing vessel with a crew of 12 ran aground in the popular marine sanctuary, where a US minesweeper got stuck in January and was recently extracted only nine days ago following an elaborate salvaging operation.
The steel-hulled vessel based in Fujian, China, was identified by the Tubbataha Management Office as a fishing boat with the marking 63168. It was unclear why the boat strayed into the 97,000-hectare diving destination designated a World Heritage site by Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural arm, for its rich biodiversity.
“It’s clear in the charts that the Tubbataha sanctuary is off-limits to navigation but there seems to be a line of ships just waiting to violate that regulation,” said park superintendent Angelique Songco.
The Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Romblon was dispatched to the area in the Sulu Sea flank of mainland Palawan and detained the Chinese for questioning in Puerto Princesa City.
“Once the boat is freed from its current position and is able to move using its own propulsion, the BRP Romblon will escort it to Puerto Princesa,” said Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena, the Coast Guard commandant.
Initial reports indicated that the Chinese had no permit to enter the marine sanctuary and were expected to be charged with poaching and illegal entry.
No estimated damage has been released by authorities. A plan to scramble or send a naval aircraft to conduct an aerial survey was aborted due to the harsh weather in the area.
Cmdr. Joseph Rostum Peña of Naval Forces West told the Inquirer that the Chinese vessel ran aground at 11:45 p.m. on Monday at the north atoll of Tubbataha where the park’s Ranger Station is located.
He said that while an investigation was still being conducted, there were clear indications the fishing vessel had committed several violations.
“That is a marine sanctuary. Entry of fishing vessels there is not allowed and clearly they had no permit,” Peña said.
“We want to determine if they can be charged with poaching and to know what they were doing there. Why is a Chinese fishing boat in the Sulu Sea?” Peña said.
Peña said they would coordinate with park authorities to conduct an assessment of the damage to the coral reef.
“There is no damage report yet but we hope we can assess that immediately,” he said.
As of 4 p.m., the 48-by-8 meter vessel ship was still stuck on a reef, as the Coast Guard vessel deployed to extricate it was too light, said Songco.
She said rangers detected the presence of the grounded vessel at about 11:40 p.m. on Monday.
“They saw something on the radar, and when they went to verify it, it turned out to be positive. The ship was only one nautical mile from the station but they had difficulty communicating with the fishermen,” who were speaking in Mandarin, she told a radio interview.
“They couldn’t communicate with us, so we have no understanding of what they needed, and why they were there,” Songco said.
Malacañang’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Palace had been informed of the Chinese intrusion and was told an investigation was underway. She had no other details.
“It’s obvious what the Chinese are doing there, they’re fishing in restricted waters,” said former Sen. Jamby Madrigal, a senatorial candidate in next month’s elections. “It’s a wake-up call for authorities to save Tubbataha from further intrusions.”
Independent senatorial candidate Teddy Casiño urged the Aquino administration to bring charges against China in the international court.
“This is more likely another attempt at poaching, as was the case in Scarborough Shoal where sharks, giant clams, corals and other rare species were plundered by Chinese fishermen,” said the outgoing party-list representative.
Said reelectionist Sen. Loren Legarda in a statement, “The grounding of the USS Guardian of the US Navy and now [the presence of a] Chinese fishing vessel on Tubbataha Reef which is within Philippine territorial waters require a serious review of how our Navy and Coast Guard patrol our maritime boundaries.”
The USS Guardian ran aground in another Tubbataha atoll on Jan. 17 and was removed on March 30 after being dismantled and lifted piece by piece by a crane to prevent more damage to the coral reefs.
The US Pacific Fleet said last week it had relieved the commanding officer, the executive officer and navigator, the assistant navigator and the officer of the deck of the Guardian after initial findings indicated all had failed to adhere to standard navigation procedures at the time of the minesweeper’s grounding.
Washington has been asked to pay $1.5 million for the 2,345 square meters of coral reef damaged by the minesweeper in Tubbataha, Songco said, adding the US Embassy was notified of the fine on Monday.
US Embassy officials have expressed regret and promised to compensate for the damage.
8 other ships
At least eight other vessels have run aground in Tubbataha in past years, including a Greenpeace ship which accidentally got stuck in the corals in 2005 while studying the impact of global warming on coral reefs. Greenpeace officials expressed regrets and paid a fine, Songco said.
Under Section 87 of the Fisheries Code, foreigners caught poaching in Philippine waters faced a fine of $100,000, in addition to the confiscation of their catch, fishing equipment and vessel. An administrative fine of between $50,000 and $200,000 may also be imposed, according to the law.
Songco said the radar used by park rangers to detect intrusions into the protected area was open only every three hours.
“It can’t be used the whole day as it consumes a lot of energy. Between those three hours, we can’t always monitor intrusions,” she said.
“With Chinese vessels, even in the past, they don’t answer on the radio. If we try to communicate with them, they don’t answer. Sometimes, they even block the radio,” she said.
“There was no marine life, except dried fish. There are nets, but no catch. But according to Tubbataha law, if a foreign vessel enters, it’s considered prima facie evidence, so poaching is the case to be filed against them, even without a catch,” Songco said.—With reports from Marlon Ramos, Norman Bordadora, Michael Lim Ubac, Jerry E. Esplanada and AP
Originally posted: 10:18 am | Tuesday, April 9th, 2013