12 Chinese fishing crew held
A Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reef late Monday night, nearly three months after salvage ships dismantled and removed a United States Navy minesweeper from the protected marine site.
The USS Guardian, which crashed into the Unesco-declared World Heritage Site on Jan. 17, had to be dismantled piece by piece to avoid further damage to the corals.
The Philippine Coast Guard said the 65-meter-long Chinese fishing vessel ran aground at 11:45 p.m. in one of the atolls in the reef located 1.1 nautical miles east of its ranger station,
The steel-hulled vessel had 12 people on board believed to be poachers. They were taken into custody but investigators have not been able to communicate with them because they speak only Chinese.
Malacañang, meanwhile, immediately reacted to the incident, saying the full force of the law would be applied against the owners and crew of the Chinese fishing vessel.
But deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte withheld comment on whether the government would file a diplomatic protest against Beijing for the damage caused by vessel to the protected marine sanctuary.
“We will defer comment on that (diplomatic protest). What I can say at this point is that the law will be followed,” Valte said.
“The President has been informed about the Chinese fishing vessel and necessary steps have been and will be taken in response to the Chinese fishing boat,” she added.
The country also did not file a diplomatic protest against the United States despite the massive damage caused by the USS Guardian, nor did it seek higher compensation for the damage caused by the warship to the Tubbataha Reef.
Tubbataha parks superintendent Angelique Soco even admitted that the $1.4 million fine meted against the US government was a mere “a slap on the wrist.”
Songco, meanwhile, said that Coast Guard rescue vessel SARV 3503 had been deployed to the area to investigate the grounding of the Chinese fishing vessel.
Chinese fishermen frequently enters Philippine waters to fish. In April last year, Chinese fishermen were caught poaching at the Panatag Shoal, which is located within the country’s 200-nautical mile, exclusive economic zone.
But Chinese maritime officials prevented local authorities from arresting the fishermen, sparking a territorial dispute not only within the shoal, but in the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), which the Chinese claim as entirely theirs.
“At the moment, the vessel is still on the same grounding position and the instruction for the Philippine Coast Guard is to coordinate with other agencies involved in the area to guard the Chinese fishing boat,” said Coast Guard chief information officer Cdr. Armand Balilo.
He added that the BRP Romblon would escort the 12 crewmen of the fishing vessel to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan for further investigation.
“The intention is to bring them (crew) to Puerto Princesa and turn them over to National Committee on Illegal Entrance for further investigation,” he said.
He added, however, that they would wait for a high tide Tuesday night or Wednesday morning to see if they can refloat the ship.
Balilo added that the Chinese fisherman could be detained and charged for illegal entry as provided by a provision of the Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009.
Philippine Navy spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic, meanwhile, said they would file charges of illegal entry and illegal fishing against the Chinese fishermen.
Fabic added that they would conduct an aerial survey to assess the extent of damage on the reef. The Chinese nationals will also be held responsible for the grounding incident.
Balilo said he did not want to speculate how the Chinese fishermen reached Tubbataha, considering that the reef is about 1,600 kilometers southeast of Hainan Island, China’s nearest landmass.
But a navy official said the fishermen likely sailed through the South China Sea and passed through a narrow strait at the southern tip of Palawan.
Meanwhile, top Chinese officials said that China should set up a coast guard to cope with the “increasingly challenging” maritime disputes with neighboring countries.
Luo Yuan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee and researcher with the Academy of Military Science, said a coast guard should be established in part from some of the existing agencies whose responsibilities include enforcing law in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Luo made the remarks against the background of disputes between China and several of its neighbors intensifying in recent years over. These have intensified disputes regarding claims to territory of some islands and demarcation of some waters in the South China Sea and East China Sea. With Joyce Pañares and The AP