Tubbataha officials protest U.S. behavior

(2nd UPDATE) The Tubbataha management lodges a formal protest with the US government after the US Navy again barred rangers from approaching its vessel stuck in the protected area

ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER. The US Navy has not yet explained why its minesweeper entered the marine protected area. Graphic by Emil Mercado

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The management of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lodged on Friday, January 18, a formal protest with the US government after the US Navy again barred park rangers from approaching a vessel stuck inside the protected area.

“The ship’s commander ordered a general alert and deployed personnel into battle position when our rangers tried to approach their ship to assess the situation, forcing them to back off,” chief supervisor Angelique Songco told reporters.

Songco explained that it was the “behavior of the ship’s commanding authorities” that prompted the park management to file the protest.

“They were well inside the marine park, stuck in the North Atoll of Tubbataha and we were being prevented from coming close,” she said.

A second American vessel — the USS Champion, another minesweeper like the stuck USS Guardian — arrived in the area on Friday morning apparently to help get the first ship off the reef.

(Read: A sad day for a scuba diver)

STUCK ON THE REEF. Photo of the USS Guardian stuck at the Tubbataha North Atoll taken from a Nomad plane from the Philippine Air Force on 17 January courtesy of AFP WESCOM

No coral damage assessment yet

Although the park management is sure the ship damaged the coral, it cannot yet estimate the extent of the damage in an area teeming with marine life.

“We don’t know yet how much damage has been done. We can only wait till they leave before we take a look at the area,” she said.

In a statement, the US embassy in Manila said that to ensure their safety, most of the sailors aboard the vessel were being transferred to a support vessel.

“A small complement of engineering and bridge personnel will remain aboard and work with a US Navy team in an attempt to free Guardian with minimal environmental impact,” the statement added.

The embassy added that the Navy is still investigating what caused the vessel’s grounding.

The USS Guardian reportedly hit the upper side of the South Atoll — one of the two main atolls comprising the Tubbataha Reefs — at dawn of Thursday, January 17.

According to a US Pacific Fleet statement, the Americans notified the Philippine government of the accident but ignored the park rangers, tasked with enforcing a commercial and fishing vessel ban within the 97,030 hectares of the award-winning protected area.

“They [US authorities] had not communicated with us so far,” Songco said.

PRISTINE REEFS. The coral reefs of Tubbataha are healthy and free from parasites such as the nasty crown-of-thorns starfish that eats polyps, the live organisms that make up the coral. Photo by Lory Tan/WWF

Gov’t to seek damages

The government will seek damages from the United States after the incident, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez said on Friday.

Hernandez noted that the US, the Philippines’s main defence ally, had provided some information on the incident, but announced Manila would conduct its own probe.

“We are now asking our government agencies to investigate the incident and make an assessment on the damage caused by this and the legal obligation,” he said.

The penalty would depend on the amount of damage caused by the ship, added the DFA official.

Once the damage is assessed, the owner of the ship – the US Navy – can expect to pay P12,000 per sqm of destroyed reefs under Section 19 of Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) Act of 2009.

The USS Guardian also entered the area without permission, another violation under section 19 of the TRNP Act, according to park officials.

PARADISE ON EARTH. In this sunset view from the sandbar with the rangers detachment in the background. Photo by Anais Thoret

No request for assistance

More than 24 hours after the USS Guardian ran aground in the Sulu Sea, the Philippine military has so far received no request for assistance from the US Navy.

Maj Oliver Banaria, Armed Forces of the Philippines 6th Civil Relations Group commander, told reporters one of their gunboats had spotted a foreign “support vessel” in the area, referring to the USS Champion.

Bonaria added that as of now the Americans have not asked for help and regarding the damage, he said it will be determined by the park management as Tubbataha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.

Asked about the incident, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said that the government’s main concern is for the accident to have “minimal” impact on the protected area.

“That is what we are hoping, which is why everybody is working to extricate the minesweeper as quickly as possible. We can hold off on all the other speculations first at this point before we are fully assessed of the extent of the situation,” she said.

The partylist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) warned that the incident raises more questions about the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States.

“Our officials should have the political will to decisively make them accountable,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said in a statement. Rappler.com, with reports from Agence France-Presse

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