US Navy to be charged with unauthorized entry, damage to Tubbataha Reef
Efforts to free USS Guardian from Tubbataha Reef underway. An aerial photo taken by the AFP Western Command on Saturday shows the USS Guardian, a US Navy minesweeper, as it remains trapped on Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea since Jan. 17. Vice Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US 7th Fleet, said he regretted the grounding of the USS Guardian, one of the fleet's minesweepers, on Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. AFP/Wescom
The Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) on Tuesday disclosed that it will charge the United States Navy with unauthorized entry and damage to Tubbataha Reef after its warship, the USS Guardian, ran aground on the UNESCO-declared world heritage site's pristine coral atoll.
“Under Republic Act 10067, it is the TPAMB's mandate to protect, preserve and promote the resources of Tubbataha Reef… It is the TPAMB’s intention to serve the US Navy with a formal notice listing violations of the above law in the grounding incident of January 17 involving the USS Guardian,” the park management said in a statement.
According to the Tubbataha management team, the “evident” violations include unauthorized entry, non-payment of conservation fee, and obstruction of law enforcement officers.
The US Navy was also charged with wreaking “damages to the reef” and “destroying resources.”
Unestimated reef damage
“The Park has suffered physical damage, the extent of which cannot be accurately estimated at this time,” TPAMB added, noting that it will serve another formal notice of violation after the final damage assessment.
According to GMA’s reporter-on-the-ground, Cedric Castillo, TPAMB on Tuesday created Task Force Tubbataha to determine the damage wrought by the Guardian. The task force will be composed of officers from the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine Navy and the Tubbataha Management Office.
US Navy snubbed park rangers
According to Tubbataha Park manager Angelique Songco, this is the first time that an intruder in the national park has not been inspected by the rangers.
“The situation is very different [from our past encounters],” Songco told GMA News Online on Tuesday. “Sa explanation ng [Philippine] Navy, ‘pag war ship hindi pumapayag [for inspection]. Kaya hindi pinaakyat ‘yung park rangers.”
She explained that the US Navy did not make any effort to communicate with the park rangers even after they have ran aground in the coral reef.
“Wala pong communication. May isang ranger doon na nakakita na may ilaw na dapat naman wala. Nung tinignan nila sa radar, meron talagang [barko],” she said.
“[Around] 3 am, nung nakita nila [‘yung barko], tinawagan [nila gamit ang radio] kaya lang hindi umiimik,” Songco noted.
The patrol team braved the ‘very rough waves’ and went near the ship, which is about 7 nautical miles from the ranger station, she added.
“Nung nakita na yung [park rangers] within sight saka lang sumagot sa radio. Sabi ng US Navy, kausapin niyo ang Embassy,” the park manager detailed.
“Ang nakakainis, it is not fair na hindi man lang sila [sumagot sa radio noong malayo pa]. Parang pumasok sila sa bahay ng iba at hindi man lang nagpakilala,” she said.
Intimidated by US Navy
The park’s four-man patrol team was purportedly intimidated after the US Navy officers took their “battle position.”
“Hindi sila (park rangers) pinapasok. [The US Navy] is in the battle position for whatever emergency… Di komportable [ang ating mga rangers],” Songco disclosed.
“Maraming baril ‘yung Navy, pero hindi totoo na tinutukan ng baril [ang rangers]. Nasa kani-kanilang assignment with the ship [yung mga officer],” she added.
Songco noted that from 2007 to 2009, park rangers caught about 200 illegal fishermen including Chinese poachers in the protected marine waters.
In 2005, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior hit Tubbataha Reef, costing the environmental group about P384,000 in damages.
Tubbataha: A ship-exclusive zone
Likewise, Songco revealed that the US Navy would not disclose the reason why it was within the waters of the 97,000-hectare marine park.
“Hind namin malaman kung bakit sila pumasok. Kahit sila, they cannot explain,” she said.
Although Sulu Sea, where the reef is located, is a known route for tankers, cargo ships and vessels, the park manager noted that mariners know that the Tubbataha Reef is a “no navigation area.”
She noted that vessels need an entry permit from the Tubbataha Management Office before it may navigate into the area.
“If there is force majeure, radio lang [ang kailangan mula sa mga barko],” the TMO chief added. However, in the case of the USS Guardian, it failed to communicate with the reef’s management.
Boat may sink?
Meanwhile, World Wildlife Fund – Philippines president Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan questioned why the high-tech warship ran aground the corals.
“(The) US Navy has many redundant systems in place that can easily correct navigation errors,” he said.
“Maniwala ka sa akin after holy week pa ‘yan [maasess ang damage]. The boat is still in the same position but it can still break up, crash, or smash anytime,” Tan added. — TJD, GMA News