Bigger volumes of corals, shells found in Zamboanga warehouses
ZAMBOANGA CITY—Two 20-foot container vans can hardly hold the contraband.
Fears of widespread illegal harvesting of protected corals and other marine species in the waters off Mindanao were confirmed when authorities discovered more endangered sea resources kept in several warehouses and buying stations here, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) director Asis Perez said Saturday.
Perez said that in one of the warehouses they inspected in San Roque village on Saturday, the volume of corals and shells they found would not fit in two 20-foot container vans. “We saw a still undetermined, huge volume (of corals and shells), much bigger than what were seized in Manila,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The stash of protected corals and other marine species were found and seized during two days of inspection at warehouses and buying stations of controversial firm Li and Lim Trading here, Perez said.
He said a team of experts would be arriving here anytime soon “to help us identify, determine and categorize the type of species found at one of the warehouses.”
“We have conducted a thorough search, there’s indication of illegal items, we can see illegal items even if we don’t open the boxes and in the second premises, shells are in boxes and sealed and there were several cuts of still undetermined items,” Perez said.
Rosella Contreras, head of the Fish Inspection and Quarantine Services of the BFAR in Western Mindanao, said among the items they saw at one of the warehouses were Porcelain clams.
The gathering of Porcelain clams or Hippopus porcellanus is equally banned, she said.
Ahadulla Sajili, BFAR Western Mindanao director, said the fact-finding team had inspected a total of three warehouses since Friday.
Sajili said they also inspected a warehouse operated by Uan Huat Trading whose owner, Joe Pring, had been charged in 2007 after authorities found and seized endangered marine species from the warehouse. Authorities did not say if they found endangered species from their inspection trips on Friday and Saturday.
Sajili said it turned out that Joe Pring, also known as Joe Ping, a Taiwanese, is the husband of Olivia Li. Li is the proprietess of Li and Lim Trading.
Li was charged by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) last Friday with illegally harvesting P35 million worth of black corals and other endangered species. She has not been seen since then and was placed on the immigration watch list.
Li found a defender in Chief Supt. Elpidio de Asis, chief of the Western Mindanao police.
Citing the permit obtained by Li from the city’s business licensing office, De Asis said the businesswoman was operating a legitimate business.
“This does not look to me like smuggling. Some people were trying to make money and they did not know they were gathering banned marine products,” he said.
But Perez disagreed by saying that a highly organized syndicate could be behind the smuggling of protected corals and shells from this city.
“So many people were involved. People who are gathering and selling, consolidating … There are people making sure it’s transported and people who hide their real identities like the consignee of the one shipped and seized in Metro Manila,” he said.
Perez said “there’s really a pattern, in other words it’s a pretty well thought of operation, it’s not something you do by impulse, well-thought process, well planned, by all indications it’s a syndicated crime,” Perez added.
Hadji Alano Alihuddin, provincial fisheries officer of Basilan, also backed Perez’s statement.
He said even village officials in his province could attest that those gathering corals there were escorted by heavily armed men.
But De Asis again rejected the idea of a syndicated crime, saying the gathering and selling of corals have become a cottage industry for some fishermen in the Western Mindanao area.
The BOC said during a meeting with BFAR officials and other government agency representatives here Friday that it could not possibly detect illegal items shipped out of the port here to other parts of the country.
The BOC said it only inspects outbound cargoes for international destinations and not inter-island shipments and pointed to the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) as the responsible agency. But PPA officials also washed their hands, saying it was the job of the BOC.
Officials of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) said shipping companies would have discovered they were transporting banned items.
They said it was unlikely for shipping companies to just allow cargoes on board without knowing what these were. With a report from Leila B. Salaverria