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MANILA, Philippines - How did the USS Guardian end up near the Tubbataha Reef?
Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte said various government agencies will be conducting their own investigation on how this happened, considering that Tubbataha had been declared a World Heritage site.
As such, it is a highly protected area and is not supposed to be easily accessible.
Protected area superintendent and head of the Tubbataha management office Angelique Songco earlier told Rappler that the ship "entered without a permit" in violation of section 19 of Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) Act of 2009.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a 97,030-hectare Marine Protected Area in Palawan. It is located 150 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa City, at the heart of the Coral Triangle, acknowledged as the global center of marine biodiversity.
The Coral Triangle is home to at least 40% of the world’s fish and 75% of corals. Being in the center of the Coral Triangle, Tubbataha Reef plays a critical role in the preservation of marine biodiversity.
The USS Guardian, an Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, ran aground at 2:25 am near Tubbataha, which is about 98 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa City.
"We have to find out kung ano po muna ’yung mga circumstances. As I mentioned yesterday, the primary concern is extricating the ship out of the reef with minimal damage. So hindi pa ho natin makikita ‘yung extent hanggang maitanggal po ‘yan at makababa po ‘yung mga divers natin doon to check what will hopefully be very minimal damage," Valte said in a radio interview.
The extent of the destruction could not be immediately determined even as some reports said 10 meters of coral were damaged by the US navy ship's minesweeper. The ship, according to Valte, would have to be extricated.
Besides unauthorized entry, the USS Guardian is also liable to be charged with destroying and disturbing resources inside the marine protected area under section 26 of the TRNP Act.
Government will await the results of investigations and subsequent recommendations. "Then we move forward with the guidance of what the law provides," Valte said.
In an earlier statement, the US Navy said, "The Avenger-Class ship had just completed a port call in Subic Bay, Olongapo City and was en route to her next port of call when the grounding occurred. The ship is currently stuck on the reef, approximately 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan. The crew is currently working to determine the best method of safely extracting the ship."
Songco of the Tubbataha management office had said the US Navy should be liable for entering the marine reserve without a permit, damaging corals and not cooperating with local officers. The fine imposed on them, she said, will depend on the extent of the assessed damage.
Meanwhile, Sen Chiz Escudero, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, said the US government should also be held liable for all damages.
Calling the incident a “very serious one,” Escudero said his committee may launch a probe to uncover possible violations of Philippine and international laws.
The Philippine Coast Guard stationed in Tubbataha Reef said it radioed the ship's unauthorized entry and reported that it caused damage to the reef.
In a press statement, Escudero said, "The reef's protection status has been severely violated, neglected. We are also looking at what other violations were incurred. We should demand not only for indemnity for damages but also for the restoration costs. Reefs are grown over centuries, the extent of the damage and what it will leave cannot be quantified in any amount." - Rappler.com