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USS Guardian damage to Tubbataha worst on record

PUERTO PRINCESA, Palawan — The USS Guardian has dealt the worst damage to Tubbataha Reef ever recorded in the history of the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), according to park manager Angelique Songco. The full damage assessment has yet to be made, but nothing of this magnitude is known have previously happened in the park, according to the Tubbataha official. In an interview with GMA News Online, Songco pointed out that damage incidents are few and far between: records show that there have been just nine incidents in all the 12 years of monitoring since the park management was founded in 2001. "But of all the damage that's happened (combined), wala pa yan sa kalahati ng nagawa ng Guardian," Songco said. "(It's the) worst ever for us since 12 years ago, when the TMO was founded," she added in a separate text message to GMA News Online. Initial conservative estimates had pegged the Guardian's damage to at least 1,000 square meters. Official maps and data provided by the Tubbataha Task Force indicate that the Guardian is stranded on the northwestern part of Tubbataha's South Atoll:
According to an updated World Wildlife Fund (WWF) map, this particular area of the atoll consists of "rubble and coral" (indicated in gray). A source at the Philippine Coast Guard, who declined to be named, explained that this area contains mostly rocks and coral that died from natural causes —suggesting that the damage might not be as extensive as earlier thought. In contrast, an earlier report from the WWF indicated that the site of the grounding was further east, at a portion of the atoll that is more densely populated with living coral (indicated by orange in the WWF map). Nevertheless, Songco said that the location of the impact does not lessen the gravity of the situation. "It's like the difference between a forest and a desert: it doesn't mean one is less (ecologically) important than the other," she said. "It's not less valuable, it's just different. It's a different (kind of) colony (of marine wildlife)," she stressed. Early Friday morning, the Task Force conducted a reconnaissance flyover above the site: The video, taken by PCG spokesperson Cmdr. Armand Balilo onboard a US Navy Orion surveillance plane, shows the Guardian as it is being drained of fuel by the USS Apollo, a US Navy recovery ship. He said that nobody is discounting the USS Guardian's effect on the reef. Balilo pointed out that a "marine environment specialist" from the US Navy arrived Friday morning to prepare to assess the full extent of the damage wrought by the Guardian. But he reiterated that the assessment can only be undertaken after the ship is removed at the end of February, as scheduled. "(The full assessment) will happen matapos maalis ang barko," he said. He also allayed fears that the USS Guardian, made lighter due to the removal of its fuel stores, poses any further threat to the reef. "The naval architects have computed the weight, and alam nila yan," he said. Meanwhile, Balilo said that the crucial draining of fuel from the USS Guardian is well underway and that improved weather conditions mean that the operation may be finished earlier than expected. "(The operation) is already 70 percent complete. By this day, kumpleto na sya," he said. — KBK/HS, GMA News