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Last summer season, the Philippine Coast Guard got the ire of the local and foreign tourists who waited for the completion of predeparture inspection before their watercraft could depart. The PCG has the mandate, based on the Republic Act 9993, to conduct such inspection on all vessels that sail within the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines. Due to the limited number of PCG personnel nationwide to carry out the inspection, the process usually causes delay in the scheduled departures.
This brings us to the question of whether the PCG personnel has enough resources to inspect all vessels that depart in a day nationwide. Also, whether this mandate is practically tenable or not.
According to PCG records, there is a monthly average of 71,500 domestic watercraft nationwide that are inspected before departure. If conservatively computed vis a vis the 73 Coast Guard stations nationwide, it would mean that one station should inspect at least 33 watercraft in a day, excluding the foreign flag vessels which are subject to port state control.
It is worth noting that there is a limited number of PCG personnel in the frontlines who are also performing vessel safety enforcement inspection. Other personnel must attend to equally important coast guard functions, like maritime law enforcement, marine environmental protection, among others.
The PCG is given such mandate because legislators recognized the perilous environment of the sea. They intend to make sure that an agency of the state could control the greed of the shipowners who accommodate excess passengers or operate vessels that are not seaworthy and would endanger the public and harm the maritime environment. While the law may sound rational, it is also this mandate that has made the PCG the scapegoat in the recent maritime tragedies. Instead of the shipowners and boat operators, it is the PCG that had received the blame for the mishaps.
Notably, the registration of domestic vessels is the mandate of the Maritime Industry Authority. It is the responsibility of Marina to ensure that a watercraft, before it is registered, is at all times in seaworthy condition and equipped with the necessary life-saving appliances, communications equipment, and other requirements set forth by the agency. It is also necessary that a licensed and competent crew should operate it. Consequently, it should be understood that the condition of the vessel, once it is registered, is not an assurance that it will remain safe for departure once it operates. Due to this gap, Congress recognized the importance of PCG to conduct a predeparture inspection on all these vessels.
However, the setup has created more problems. The shipowners have been more complacent since they were not impugned for any maritime incidents. Since the terrible Doña Pass incident in 1987, considered to be the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster until the Princess of the Stars in 2008, no shipowner has been imprisoned because there are no specific laws that could legitimately pinpoint the shipowners’ responsibility in sea mishaps. The usual charges of reckless imprudence under the Revised Penal Code can be technically circumvented to escape such accountability.
The PCG officials are always put in the limelight after every incident. They are the ones held accountable to the public to explain why vessels collided or capsized. They are the ones crucified in matters that concern the unseaworthiness of the vessel or the excessive number of passengers on board. The rationale behind such thinking is because they are the last government agency that should ensure that the riding public would be safe.
Ironic as it may seem, it is because of this PCG mandate that the public has forgotten the shipowners who were given “Certificate of Public Convenience” as a license to operate and have this responsibility. The PCG’s performance of the predeparture inspection takes away this burden of responsibility from the shipowners.
Needless to say, this particular setting could also be an opportunity among coast guard ranks to abuse their authority in exchange for favors. There had been accusations that PCG officials were given bribes or gifts so that the departing vessel would be cleared even if it had engine problems or excessive number of passengers. There was also an instance in Palawan where the dive boat owners alleged a coast guard official of extortion for them to be permitted to sail. These kinds of issues could only be eliminated if the PCG would be relieved of such absolute authority in allowing a watercraft to depart or not.
The state conducting predeparture inspection of vessels is something no longer practiced in other parts of the world. The mindset that the sea is a perilous environment had long been altered when the planes started carrying passengers in the sky. It is about time that our lawmakers pass a dedicated law for the shipping industry that explicitly defines the responsibility and accountability or the shipowners once an incident occurs. Let the modern PCG focus on its multifarious tasks. (READ: [OPINION] What is missing in Duterte’s war on drugs?) – Rappler.com
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and is currently a Ph.D. student at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu. All views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official stand of the Philippine Coast Guard.