‘Disguised fishermen’ in reef? AFP checking

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Are the 12 Chinese crewmembers of a fishing vessel that ran aground in Tubbataha real fishermen or spies in disguise?

This is what Philippine intelligence officials are trying to determine as the investigation into the April 12 incident gets underway, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said yesterday.

“There is a formal investigation on the illegal entrants who are now in Palawan. But we also have our intelligence community that can look into this, analyze and see if indeed they are genuine fishermen or disguised fishermen,” Gazmin said. “It’s hard to make accusations. We should have a basis for accusing these people or suspecting people.”

The 12 allegedly tried to bribe Tubbataha park rangers with $2,400 – a point that casts doubt on their being fishermen, according to some quarters.

Gazmin said they would also check if it was just a coincidence that the grounding of the Chinese fishing vessel F/B Ming Long Yu and US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian in Tubbataha happened less than three months apart.

“Let’s just hope it’s coincidental. As I said, it means there is a need for us to investigate and to determine what really happened,” Gazmin told reporters yesterday.

It was only late last month that the last chunk of the Guardian was finally removed from Tubbataha, a World Heritage Site.

The US Navy has blamed faulty navigational charts for the incident. The Tubbataha reef in the Sulu Sea covers 130,028 hectares.

The Chinese vessel ran aground just 1.1 nautical miles east of the Tubbataha ranger station. The boat had fishing nets but no fish or marine life was found on board, according to authorities.

The vessel was reportedly on its way back from Malaysia to its homeport in Fujin City in China when it got stuck in a coral shelf in Tubbataha.

The 12 Chinese fishermen, led by their 46-year-old captain Liu Chang Jie, are facing charges for violating various provisions of the Tubbataha Act of 2009 including Sections 19 (unauthorized entry), 20 (damage to the reefs), 26 (destroying, disturbing resources), and 27 (poaching by foreigners). They are also facing bribery charges.

The grounding of the USS Guardian destroyed more than 2,300 square meters of coral reef. The US Navy promised to pay for the damage which, based on government estimate, was at least P58 million.

Philippine Coast Guard officials said salvage work on F/B Ming Long Yu is likely to push through tomorrow as good weather is seen to prevail.

“The weather for the rest of the week is very favorable. It is favorable for refloating, for salvaging operations,” said PCG Palawan District commander Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista yesterday.

“There would be one expert from Malayan (Towage Salvaging Corp.) to assess the situation, to know what they need (in the salvaging operations). The expert would be there to give technical advice or his expert opinion on what would be the best method to remove the ship. If the refloating of the ship is not successful then we would have another option,” he added.

He said their first option is to refloat the vessel by making it lighter by removing some equipment as well as siphoning off water as well as some 80,000 liters of diesel fuel.

The BRP Romblon returned to the site yesterday while the BRP Corregidor is expected to arrive today. So far, the steel hull of the Chinese vessel has remained intact and there have been no reports of oil spill in the area.

Higher fines

As the 12 Chinese nationals await trial for causing damage to Tubbataha, Malacañang said it is open to imposing higher fines on poachers.

“We are currently studying measures to prevent further incidents on Tubbataha Reef. We will consider all constructive inputs,” Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said in a text message.

Some quarters bewail what they consider light penalties for violation of the country’s environmental laws.

The Palace said the penalties and sanctions were based on existing laws passed by Congress.

Malacañang also defended the filing of charges against the 12 Chinese nationals but ruled out filing of a diplomatic protest against the Chinese government. “Chinese officials are only trying to assist their citizens” when they sought their release from detention.

“For our part, we are only enforcing our laws in our territory,” Carandang said.

On Thursday, Carandang said the government was not looking at a possible espionage case against the Chinese despite reports that their vessel was equipped with state of the art technology.

“At this point, we’re treating it the way it looks. The way it looks is it’s a Chinese fishing vessel not government-owned, and that they ran aground by accident. We have no reason to believe otherwise. So unless we get an indication that there’s something more to it, then we will leave it at that with the current actions that we have taken,” he said.

Carandang said the incident last April 8 involving the Chinese vessel was different from the grounding of the USS Guardian.

“There’s that presumption that they’ve (Chinese) gotten into our territory” to exploit marine resources “which rightfully belong to us.”

“And so that’s the basis on which we will proceed with whatever actions we will take,” Carandang said.

No slap on the wrist

He also brushed aside accusations that the Philippines gave kid glove treatment to the USS Guardian crew.

“First of all, those are two separate incidents. They are not apples to apples. One is a military ship of an allied country (that) is here with our permission, involved in our mutual defense; the other is a private fishing vessel, which was here without permission, which was here for commercial reasons,” Carandang said.

“So clearly, the different natures of these two vessels would necessitate different responses. And I don’t think anyone would argue that you treat one the same way as the other, since they’re completely different circumstances,” he said.

“The goal is to find out what happened. Number two, to seek some sort of reparation for the damages that admittedly were incurred. Nobody believes that this was done on purpose,” he said, referring to the USS Guardian incident.

“This is the second time in one year – less than a year – that we’ve seen something happen in Tubbataha, and we need to find ways, moving forward, to prevent this from happening,” Carandang said.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also said the latest Tubbataha incident was different from the Panatag Shoal incursion.

“The issue on Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal) has already been elevated to an arbitral tribunal. In the case of the recent apprehension of the Chinese fishermen, as the President already mentioned, the law itself states that it is the owner of the fishing vessel that is liable for the prohibited acts within the area of Tubbataha,” Valte said.

Meanwhile, a Palawan prelate and a senatorial candidate proposed that the Coast Guard be equipped with advanced equipment and bigger vessels to ensure better protection of the country’s maritime resources, particularly in Tubbataha Reef.

“I don’t know if the authority has the capability but what is really needed is stricter, closer and tighter security in the area to avoid this kind of incident again,” Bishop Pedro Arigo said in a report in CBCPNews, the official news service provider of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

“We don’t have these modern equipment so this is really our problem, so I hope government will give enough support and funding to our Coast Guard for them to have modern equipment,” he said.  “And if there’s a need for more manpower that will secure the area, the government should do something about it.”

Zambales Rep. Milagros Magsaysay, who is also a senatorial candidate, voiced the same proposal.

“When you have a natural God-given beauty like the Tubbataha Reef that takes decades to repair, depending on the extent of the damage, you need to make a big investment to protect such national pride,” Magsaysay said.

With Aurea Calica, Evelyn Macairan, Paolo Romero













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