Environment officials on Friday began assessing the damage to the coral reefs in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park after they were grazed by a US Navy minesweeper last Thursday, saying the US government may be liable to pay fines of up to P1 million.
The USS Guardian must be extricated immediately from the coral reef to prevent further damage to the World Heritage Site and treasured dive spot, said Angelique Songco, the park superintendent.
“They have to get that ship out because we’re worried that the longer it’s there, the more the damage will spread,” she said.
The ship remained stuck in the reef yesterday because of bad weather, Songco said in a phone interview.
Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau director Mundita Lim said her office, in coordination with the Tubbataha Management Office headed by Songco, was now trying to determine how much damage was sustained by the reef.
This process would be made easier by the fact that the government has baseline information on the Tubbataha Reefs, meaning “we would know which corals were damaged before and after the accident took place.”
Songco said the US government would be fined P25,000 for each square meter of damaged coral, among other penalties.
“Other transgressors like Greenpeace paid that fine so we will impose the same penalty in fairness to them,” she said.
In 2005, a Greenpeace ship ran aground a reef in the Tubbataha and the environmental group was forced to pay almost P400,000 to the park management.
Songco lamented that the fine was still “too small” considering there was no way to accurately put a value to the environmental damage caused by such accidents.
She said the US government would also face administrative fines of from P100,000 to P300,000 for its unauthorized entry into a protected area, in violation of Republic Act 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009.
She said other local authorities were also not informed of the ship’s entry.
On top of that, she said the US government may be asked to pay between P300,000 and P1 million in “reparations” to the Philippine government for lost income from the impact of the accident on fish density.
“We will vote on this in the council,” she said.
“The Americans would laugh at us if we actually only asked for $300 (P25,000) per square meter,” Songco said.
“I don’t think they will try to escape their responsibility,” Lim said.
Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief executive officer and vice chair of World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines, earlier said an aerial survey of the accident site by the Philippine Air Force showed that the ship, with a width of 11.88 meters, may have rammed through at least 10 meters of coral.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies at the center of the Sulu Sea. It protects almost 100,000 hectares of high-quality marine habitats containing three atolls and a large area of deep sea.
On Thursday, the 68-meter USS Guardian grazed the reef before dawn and got stuck some 128 kilometers off Palawan as it sailed off to its next port call, the US 7th Fleet said.
The Philippine Coast Guard yesterday ordered the deployment of its marine environmental protection vessel to check for possible oil spill and damage to the coral reefs.
PCG Commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena ordered the dispatch of the BRP Corregidor with rescue and marine environmental protection personnel on board to give assistance, if necessary, to the officers and crew of the USS Guardian.
Isorena said that aside from the two rescue teams from the Coast Guard Special Operations Group (CGSOG) and two other teams from the Marine Environmental Protection Command (Mepcom), a medical team was also dispatched to help the ship’s crew members.
He said the Mepcom team also brought equipment such as oil spill boom, skimmer and oil dispersant chemicals to prevent any oil spill incidents.
Upon learning of the accident, a joint team from the PCG, the Tubbataha Management Office, and the Philippine Navy conducted seaborne patrol operations. The Coast Guard Detachment in Tubbataha later established radio contact to inform the US Navy ship of its violations of RA 10067, the PCG said.