Adrift in the reefs
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - January 21, 2013 - 12:00am

Around 7:30 in the morning of January 17, marine park ranger Roy Magbanua alerted the Tubbataha Park Superintendent that a United States warship had run aground in the south atoll of the protected area. Several hours later it was determined that the ship in distress was the 68-meter long USS Guardian minesweeper.

The presence of American warships for unscheduled repairs, or port calls, or refueling is governed by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US that allows these things to happen.

But what makes the presence of the US Navy minesweeper questionable was that it ran aground at one of our country’s five World Heritage sites and threatens to cause manmade environmental disaster.

The Tubbataha Reef Natural Marine Park in the Sulu Sea is one of the country’s protected areas that has the most extensive coral networks. Any swimming, snorkeling or diving activity in the park must have prior special permit from the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board headed by Angelique Songco bewailed in her incident report that no one from the American warship informed any Philippine government authorities in the area about their presence. It was discovered only by park superintendents around 4 in the morning upon check of the radar records. Apparently, the American warship had been stalled there for quite a time already.

According to Songco, the Park Superintendent subsequently informed the Philippine Naval Forces of the Western Command (WesCom) and the Philippine Coast Guard District Palawan about the incident and sought their assistance. A Philippine Air Force (PAF) Nomad aircraft was immediately dispatched to conduct an aerial survey to assess the situation of the ship’s grounding on the atolls.

Aerial photographs provided by the PAF showed the ship’s bow sitting atop corals in shallow turquoise waters, with the stern floating in the deep blue.

In her report, Songco minced no words in taking to task  the lack of coordination and cooperation by the American Navy officials on board the ship. Songco admitted they came to know only about the details of the stricken ship the next day through media. “It was learned through a press release by the US 7th Fleet Public Affairs that the ship is said to have come from Subic Bay for a routine fuel stop and is en route to its next port of call in Puerto Princesa for a short visit.”

The more serious and worrisome portions of the incident report of Songco stated: “Marine park rangers reported that they called USS Guardian through radio, introduced themselves as law enforcers, informed them of their violations and that they will board the vessel. Before reaching the vessel, however, the rangers saw soldiers on board the ship taking position with their weapons. Radio contact was unanswered. The boarding protocol was therefore not conducted.”

“Barring the law enforcement agents from performing their role of boarding illegal entrants into the park, the responsible party demonstrated lack of good faith and disrespect for Philippine authority and its agents,” Songco pointed out. And yet we have VFA with the US.

Under Section 30 of Republic Act (RA)10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act (signed on April 7,2010), Songco cited, obstruction to law enforcement officer faces sanction of P50,000 in administrative fine.

And worse, Songco cited: “Tubbataha Reefs is in Philippine waters, yet the Americans managed to create their own territory within it that was off limits to Philippine authorities.” And yes, we have VFA with the US.

When the USS Guardian finally answered their radio calls, Tubbataha Park Rangers reported to Songco, they were told the US Embassy will be the ones to communicate in behalf of them. Further, the offer of assistance was refused because, according to the unidentified USS Guardian radioman, another US ship was en route to lend assistance.

True enough, a civilian US ship, Sea Champion sailed to Tubbataha to offload 72 of the 79-crew members. In an official statement released by the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, the seven left behind included the commanding and executive officers who would try to free the ship from the reef with minimal damage to the protected Tubbataha environment.

Songco noted current maps of the National Mapping and Resources Information Authority indicate Tubbataha Reefs is a ‘no navigation’ area. “With all its modern navigational equipment, it boggles the mind how USS Guardian ended up on the reef,” Songco asked.

Songco stressed the need to get the USS Guardian out from the reef as weather conditions have already caused escalation of damage to the reef resources. She called for joint assessment of coral damage needs to be undertaken to determine culpability of the responsible party as to the affected resources.

At the outset, Songco maintained the USS Guardian must face the consequences of their violations of RA 10067.

The penalty provisions include jail and fines ranging from six months but not more than one year and P100,000 to P300,000 for unauthorized entry; administrative fine for damage to the reef at P12,000 per square meter; non-payment of conservation fee at P3,000 per person plus administrative fine of double the amount; imprisonment of three to six years, fines and confiscation of vessels, equipment or gears for destroying, disturbing resources.

Lory Tan, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines said no amount of monetary compensation can bring the corals back as “corals take time to grow.” Tan is a member of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board representing the WWF Philippines.

The Tubbataha Reefs is regarded as one of the best dives sites in the world having two coral atolls that harbor a wide range of marine species including 600 species of fish, 360 species of corals, 11 species of sharks, 13 species of dolphins and whales, 100 species of birds and sea turtles.

Ironically, the USS Guardian is not living up to its name while it remains adrift in the reefs. And yes, we hope the ship’s presence has something to do with our US military alliance to protect that part of the West Philippine Sea.


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