Chinese fishing boat grounded in Tubbataha

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - A Chinese fishing vessel ran aground at the Tubbataha marine park late Monday, just days after a US warship that hit the protected heritage site in the Sulu Sea was removed.

Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesman Lt. Commander Armand Balilo said the Chinese fishing vessel, Min Long Yu, with bow no. 63168, is currently stuck 1.1 nautical miles east of the Tubbataha ranger station after running aground at 11:40 p.m.

Park rangers boarded the fishing boat, which ran aground far from the area where the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian got stuck.

A search and rescue team from the Coast Guard has been dispatched to the area while park rangers of the Tubbataha Park Management are questioning the 12 crewmembers.

“They’re now under our custody. They’ve been transferred to our ship where their basic needs are being taken care of,” Balilo said.

He said they have information that the 48-meter-long, steel-hulled fishing boat came from Fujian, China.

Asked why a Chinese fishing vessel was able to reach Tubbataha without being detected by the Coast Guard, Balilo said only that “park rangers patrol the area.”

Coast Guard commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena said their task is to check and evaluate the fishermen and their boat, and assist in refloating a vessel if needed.

If the boat can extricate itself from the reef on its own, it will be taken to Puerto Princesa in Palawan, Isorena said.

He said the Chinese fishermen would be turned over to the Philippine Commission on Illegal Entrants (PCIE).

Military forces under the Western Command led by Maj. Gen. Rustico Guerrero said they would support the filing of charges against the Chinese fishermen.

Malacañang said the Chinese fishermen are under investigation for illegal entry.

“The Tubbataha Management Office has alerted the Provincial Committee on Illegal Entrants about the fishermen on board the boat. The PCG will release further details as may be necessary,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

The Chinese embassy in Manila said yesterday afternoon that it was still verifying whether the vessel was Chinese.

“We noticed the media reports and are verifying it,” embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said in a text message.

According to Tubbataha Management Office chief Angelique Songco, there were no representatives from the embassy to help or assist the 12 fishermen.

“We cannot speak to them because they only speak Chinese. So it was difficult for us to question them on where they came from and what they were doing here in Tubbataha,” Songco said.

Naval Forces West chief Commander Joseph Rustom Peña said the Chinese fishermen could have been poaching in the area when their boat hit the atoll in the southern portion of the North Islet in Tubbataha.

Officials said the fishing boat was small enough to avoid detection, especially at night.

Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) Director Mundita Lim said the Chinese fishermen could be charged with illegal harvesting of resources.

“Fishing paraphernalia as well as wildlife such as turtles found on the boat are evidence that can be used against them,” she said.

Valte, on the other hand, did not answer questions on how the Chinese fishing vessel entered the Sulu Sea undetected.

The incident comes about three months after the Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha, damaging at least 2,345 square meters of reef.

Salvage teams had to cut the warship into pieces so it could be removed without further damaging the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The last parts of the ship were lifted only last March 29.

The Philippine government is imposing a fine of $1.4 million on the US for the damage to the reef.

The presence of the Chinese fishing boat in Tubbataha, an area outside China’s so-called nine-dash territorial line and well within Philippine territory, tended to bolster reports that Chinese fishing boats have been going in and out of Philippine territorial waters.

Military intelligence reports said Chinese defense and military authorities have been sending fishing vessels to Philippine waters to spy on the ongoing development of Philippine gas fields, specifically within the Malampaya Gas Field off Palawan.

‘Most brazen’

Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño condemned the grounding of the Chinese fishing vessel in Tubbataha.

He said the Chinese, like the Americans, should be made to pay for whatever damage they have caused on the World Heritage Site.

Casiño said the Chinese fishermen were most likely poaching in Philippine waters.

Other lawmakers warned poaching in Tubbataha Reef by foreign and local vessels would continue unless maritime authorities tighten their watch over the protected area.

Parañaque City Rep. Roilo Golez and Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon said Chinese and other foreign fishing vessels are lured to Tubbataha and other areas in Palawan as the world-famous reef is a spawning ground for aquatic life.

“There are many speculations on what is in that area – from mineral resources to Japanese treasures, but I think really the draw there is the fish,” Biazon said.

“Simply put, fishing is not allowed,” he said as he urged the government to improve protection of the area from intruders.

Biazon said other foreign fishing vessels, such as those from Taiwan, Vietnam and even Japan are known to have poached in areas near the protected reef.

Golez, a former national security adviser, said the reef is a source of food for the Philippines and even neighboring countries.

“This is one of our jewels that should not be desecrated,” he said.

Golez noted the intrusion of the Chinese vessel appears to be “the most brazen.”

He said the incident involving the Guardian was a different matter since it was a case of innocent passage.

“In the case of the Chinese vessel, they really intended to enter Philippine territory,” Golez said.

Former senator Jamby Madrigal said tighter security measures should be implemented around Tubbataha Reef.

“This latest incident shows how vulnerable our marine resources are to man-made mishaps. We need to find better ways of protecting our precious reefs. It’s obvious what the Chinese were doing there – they were fishing in restricted waters,” Madrigal said.

“We have yet to fully assess the damage caused by the USS Guardian and here we are again. It’s a wake- up call for authorities to save Tubbataha from further intrusions,” she said.

Environmentalists also condemned what they called the intrusion of another foreign vessel in Tubbataha.

“These Chinese fishermen must be prosecuted and held accountable. It is well known that Tubbataha is a marine conservation and environmentally critical area, thus entry of foreign ships is strictly prohibited,” said Clemente Bautista, National Coordinator of environmental group Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment.

“The Chinese government and its ships most likely have been emboldened by the Philippine handling of the recent grounding of the US Navy ship on Tubbataha. They observed that it is very easy to enter the Tubbataha Marine Park and if caught there is minimal risk of prosecution,” Bautista added. –Rainier Allan Ronda, Aurea Calica, Rhodina Villanueva, Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Delon Porcalla, Pia Lee-Brago










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