FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

From all the early indications, it was an accident. But it was an accident probably waiting to happen.

F/B Dearyn was rammed in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc on Oct. 2. Three Filipino fishermen were killed. The offending vessel was identified as the Pacific Anna, a crude oil tanker transiting through Philippine waters.

The tanker did not stop, as traditional maritime courtesy requires. The ship, according to initial inquiries, belongs to Sinokor Merchant Marine Co.

A full investigation may take some time to complete. Recall that when a Chinese trawler rammed into F/B Gem-Ver in the West Philippine Sea, it took all of three years for the fishermen to be compensated by the owners of the offending ship. The fishermen received only half of the compensation they demanded.

In both the ramming of Gem-Ver, as in the incident involving Dearyn, the culprits ran away from the scene without trying to rescue survivors. This is contrary to the time-honored courtesies once observed scrupulously by maritime crews. There are, to begin with, no authorities in the international sea routes enforcing these courtesies.

The situation has become a lot more precarious in the West Philippine Sea. China is claiming sovereignty over both the freedom of navigation routes and the waters within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. The Philippine Coast Guard does not have enough vessels to cover a broad area.

China’s ridiculous territorial claims compound the situation in one of the most crowded waterways in the world. The dangers of having no rules governing maritime traffic in these waters pose obvious perils.

Sen. Francis Tolentino thinks there is a need to conduct a full-scale Senate inquiry into the Oct. 2 incident even before receipt of a formal report from international bodies. The inquiry should go beyond determining liability for this accident. It should look into the possibility the Philippines could enforce rules for international maritime traffic passing through our territorial waters.

Tolentino is thinking along the lines of formally determining the country’s “archipelagic sea lanes.” On that basis, our country may set forth rules for vessels transiting through our waters as well as prescribing safety measures for the thousands of small boats our fishermen take out to open sea.

We take for granted that our government sets down rules for road traffic. Vehicles drive on the right. Speed limits are set. Vehicles missing tail lights are apprehended. Those driving under the influence of alcohol are penalized. Even drivers’ use of cell phones on the road is prohibited.

As things stand, we do not even have explicit safety standards for our small fishing boats. It is not clear how much lighting they should have during nighttime. We do not prohibit them from lingering along the major routes for much larger vessels.

The Filipino fishermen claim that the Pacific Anna should have seen them because their boats was brightly lit. The ramming happened at 4:20 a.m. But what is the standard for saying a small fishing boat is brightly lit? We have none.

We ought to be have done all these after the Gem-Ver incident. We should not wait for another tragic collision before putting in a modicum of traffic rules in the open sea.

As an archipelago, a lot of our internal waters are open to what international law calls “innocent passage.” Foreign ships, including research vessels, may sail into Benham Rise, for instance, where international law vests us with sovereign rights.

Most obviously, we have hundreds of Chinese Coast Guard, maritime militia and fishing vessels loitering in the West Philippine Sea. Some have been found crushing our coral reefs. Permanent military bases have been built over artificial islands within our exclusive economic zone.

No one else will set down maritime traffic rules in our waters except us. We should take this latest maritime accident as an opportunity for setting forth some rules. That is part of our responsibility for having sovereign rights over parts of a contested sea.

Maybe Beijing will protest any Philippine attempt to set rules governing maritime traffic in waters they claim as their own. Then let them file their diplomatic notes.

The real challenge we face is having enough Coast Guard assets to enforce the rules. In the seas, as in our roads, people tend to ignore the rules when there is no policeman in sight. Again, having claimed so much sea in the framework of the archipelagic doctrine, we have the responsibility for beefing up our enforcement assets.

Either we set rules and prepare to enforce them or leave our waters in a state of lawlessness. Cooperation agreements with our neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia have resulted in less piracy in borderless waters lying between our countries. We still have numerous problems relating to smuggling and drug trafficking, considering our very long coastline.

The Senate inquiry Tolentino is considering could open a much wider horizon of issues and concerns.

Beyond setting safety standards for small fishing boats and delineating routes for larger international vessels, we also need rules governing pollution of our seas by maritime fleets. We need rules protecting our natural resources.

Even within Manila Bay, we do not have rules for vessels disposing their waste into the sea. We do not have the policing capacity to enforce whatever few rules we have.

We can only hope Senator Tolentino is up to the task of opening an inquiry with a wider horizon of issues and concerns.

vuukle comment


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

Get Updated:

Signup for the News Round now

or sign in with