Philippine officials say 12 fishermen who were onboard a suspected Chinese ship are facing the first of several charges after their vessel got stuck on a major protected reef in the southwestern Philippines.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Management Office says the fishing vessel ran aground on an atoll close to the park rangers’ barracks.
Staff at the park took photographs of the suspected Chinese ship, which they say was equipped with fishing gear, but had no fish nor marine life on board.
Tubbataha Management spokeswoman Glenda Simon says this was enough to file the first charge of poaching, according to Philippine law.
“The mere presence of a fishing vessel inside a protected area, particularly Tubbataha, is prima facie evidence of fishing, even if they’re not caught fishing in the park,” she said.
Simon said further charges include unauthorized entry, damage to the reef and a corruption charge for an alleged bribe of $2,400 the fishermen are reported to have offered to park rangers to be set free.
The massive 97,000 hectare Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea is a UNESCO World Heritage site, prized for its marine animal biodiversity. The reefs are popular with recreational divers. The region is far from reefs and islands in the South China Sea that are contested by China.
Simon said the Philippine Coast Guard is overseeing operations to remove the 48-meter vessel. But a western command military spokesman, Major Oliver Bañaria, confirms that the boat is not being moved just yet because of rough seas.
Bañaria said officials are still trying to verify whether the fishermen are Chinese nationals. He said they spoke Chinese to a Chinese interpreter provided by the military. Also, Bañaria said three Chinese embassy officials visited the 12 fisherman, Wednesday morning.
“But of course, they were not allowed to talk to them, but [were] able to see them [from] afar because the position wherein the fishermen can be seen,” he added.
Philippines authorities are expected to allow Chinese diplomats to meet with the 12 when they have been charged.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen protesters showed up at the Chinese consular office in Manila with signs calling on China to “leave Tubbataha.” Calls to the Chinese embassy spokesman were not answered.
The incident comes nearly a year after Philippine and Chinese vessels faced off at a contested shoal near the northern Philippines in the South China Sea.
This is the second grounding incident on the reef in recent months. In January, the USS Guardian, a U.S. Navy minesweeper got stuck for 73 days. To prevent further damage to the reef, authorities dismantled the ship and used a crane to remove the pieces. The last pieces were hauled away 10 days ago.
The Philippine government is fining the U.S. about $1.5 million for the incident, which it says damaged 2,345 square meters of coral.
Tubbataha spokeswoman Glenda Simon said her office anticipates it will take less time to remove the fishing vessel, which is smaller than what used to be the 62-meter U.S.S. Guardian.