Chinese fishers tried to bribe rangers

MANILA, Philippines - Chinese fishermen on board a vessel that ran aground on the Tubbataha Reefs Monday night, April 8 tried to bribe Tubbataha park rangers, the Tubbataha Management Office said in a statement on Tuesday, April 9.

"Marine park rangers now have custody of the US$2,400 (about P99,000) with which the fishers reportedly attempted to bribe them," a statement issued by the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park on Tuesday said.

The Tubbataha management said they will file charges against the 12 fishermen for violation of Article 212 of the Revised Penal Code, which punishes acts of corrupting public officials.

The Tubbataha Management Office, along with Palawan's Provincial Committee on Illegal Entrants, are also set to file other administrative and criminal charges against the Chinese fishermen on board the 48-meter vessel with bow number 63168 for unauthorized entry, damage to the reef and poaching. 

The boat is the 7th Chinese fishing vessel caught inside the Tubbataha Reefs since 2002. 

The Chinese fishers could face imprisonment of between one year to 12 years and fines of between P100,000 to $100,000 (P4.1-M) depending on the violations. 

What makes the situation different from the case of the US navy ship that ran aground on Tubbataha in January this year?

Compared to the USS Guardian, the Chinese boat is a commercial fishing vessel, which faces stiffer penalties under the law.  

"Not only have they violated the same rules as the Guardian, more than that, it is also a commercial fishing boat. They should not even be there. There's no fishing allowed in the Tubbataha," said Lory Tan, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines, one of the groups involved in the assessment of the total damages incurred by the USS Guardian due to the accident.

Charges to be filed

Commercial fishers found to be in violation of Section 19 (Unauthorized entry, enjoyment or use of the Tubbataha reef) face stiffer penalties than regular entities -- an imprisonment of between one year to 3 years and a fine of P500,000. 

Section 26 of RA 10067 states that anyone who fishes or gathers corals shall face imprisonment of between 6 years and 1 day to 12 years and a fine of between P100,000 to P250,000, plus an additional administrative fine of P100,000 to P250,000. 

Section 27 stipulates even heavier penalties if the individuals or group caught poaching are foreigners. If found guily, the Chinese fishers could face imprisonment of between 6 years and 1 day to 12 years and a fine of $100,000. The offender's catch, fishing equipment and fishing vessel will also be confiscated. 

Tubbataha park rangers said fishing nets were on board the boat but no fish or marine life were found. 

The Philippine Coast Guard wants to refloat the 500-gross ton boat. Should the plan fail, the Coast Guard will transport the fishermen to Puerto Prinsesa City in Palawan, where the necessary charges will be filed against them. 

Wrong timing

In 2006, Chinese fishing vessel Hoi Wan was caught carrying endangered species from the Tubbataha Reef. At least 30 Chinese men on board the ship were detained but they were released after an appeal made by Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun to then Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap. 

Given the recent USS Guardian incident, Tan said the offenders might not find an easy way out this time around.  "There's such a high awareness. They know what we went through to solve the USS Guardian incident through a legal resolution. An aware public makes all the difference," he said. 

A "rapid-response" Philippine Navy ship, a WWF boat carrying the Department of Science and Technology monitoring team, as well as the Coast Guard's BRP Romblon were dispatched to the site. American troops, who are part of the USS Guardian salvage team, are also still in the area. They were supposed to leave Tuesday.