Coast guard surveys ‘deliberate’ reef damage
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Sunday raised the alarm about destroyed coral reefs in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal and a “deliberate” man-made alteration of the “natural topography of the underwater terrain” in that area, where Chinese maritime militia vessels have been repeatedly called out for swarming and intruding into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Underwater surveys from a “special covert mission” conducted by the PCG from Aug. 9 to Sept. 11 showed the presence of “crushed corals,” suggesting “a potential act of dumping, [possibly] involving the same dead corals that were previously processed and cleaned before being returned to the seabed” of the shoal about 185.2 kilometers from Rizal town, Palawan, according to Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea.
“The results of this survey were deeply concerning, as the marine ecosystem appeared lifeless, with minimal to no signs of any life forms,” he noted.
Tarriela said the PCG supported and confirmed reports by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, exposing the severe damage inflicted upon the marine environment and coral reef in the seabeds of Escoda Shoal and Rozul (Iroquois) Reef, which lies 230 km northwest of Rizal.
“The destruction which may have possibly been caused by the Chinese maritime militia vessels is not only an ecological disaster but also threatens the livelihoods of our fishermen and the fragile ecosystems that depend on a healthy marine environment,” he said.
“While the PCG’s observations may require additional scientific analysis for validation, it is of utmost importance that all Coast Guard organizations and maritime law enforcement agencies in the region prioritize their dedication to protecting and preserving marine ecosystems,” Tarriela added.
At the time of the PCG special covert mission, there were 33 Chinese maritime militia vessels in Rozul Reef and 15 in Escoda Shoal.
Both Rozul and Escoda are within the 370-km EEZ of the Philippines and are also part of the Kalayaan Island Group under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan.
They are in the southern part of Recto (Reed) Bank, where a service contract on oil exploration was put on hold last year following the government’s suspension of all exploration activities in the West Philippine Sea after a China Coast Guard vessel shadowed survey ships in the area.
Escoda is also the assembly point of Philippine vessels conducting resupply missions to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, where Chinese military ships frequently harass Filipino vessels delivering supplies to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre, the military’s outpost in that part of the West Philippine Sea.
The AFP earlier expressed concern over what they suspected as massive coral harvesting based on their own surveys in July near Rozul Reef.
In a news forum in Quezon City on Saturday, AFP Western Command (Wescom) chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos disclosed the destructive culling of corals sometime in July when there were at least 50 Chinese maritime militia vessels found clustering in Rozul.
“After we drove them away, we pinpointed the areas where the Chinese [ships] stayed and sent out our divers there to do an underwater survey. They saw there were no more corals left. The seabed was damaged and there’s nothing left there but just debris,” he noted.
According to the Wescom commander, they were coordinating with scientists and experts for an assessment of the damage in the area and to confirm the timeline of the coral harvesting there.
“But from the untrained eye of our divers, the corals there had just been harvested recently at that time,” Carlos pointed out.
He clarified, however, that it was not yet conclusive if the Chinese vessels were indeed the ones who harvested corals in Rozul.
“These are just suspicions. We are not saying they (Chinese vessels) are harvesting our corals. We suspect that somebody is harvesting our corals and that means they are violating our sovereign rights,” he said.
“It should be the Filipinos who should be enjoying the resources in our EEZ, not anyone else. But it looks like somebody is exercising that right without our permission,” he added.
For AFP spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar, the reported coral harvesting was not only detrimental to the environment but also a “threat to food security later on, not only of our country, but the whole world.”
As of Sept. 15, Carlos said the number of Chinese militia vessels in Rozul reached 40—higher than the 23 reported by Wescom during the aerial patrols conducted on Sept. 6 and 7.
To ward off these Chinese vessels and prevent their resurgence in the area, he said “We have to maintain our presence there, 100 percent, 365 days a year.”
But he admitted that due to inclement weather and limited resources, this could not be possible as Filipino troops had to return to port to refuel and rest.
“We should have a constant and strong presence there. If we need to engage our allies and treaty partners, so be it,” Carlos said.
Funding for research sought
Fisherfolk group Pamalakaya (National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organization in the Philippines) on Sunday called on the government to conduct a damage assessment on corals in Rozul Reef.
“There is a need to identify if the swarmed area was subjected to coral harvesting, clam hunting, or any military activities that destroyed its vast coral reefs,” the group said in a statement.
According to Pamalakaya, the Marcos administration must take the issue urgently and tap marine scientists and experts to evaluate the damage and the possible long-term consequences to the local fishery production.
“Of course, this requires the government to allocate sufficient funding to the science and research sectors,” said Bobby Roldan, a fisher from Zambales province and vice chair for Luzon of Pamalakaya.
He added that providing financial support to the local science and research industry would not only help in assessing the environmental impacts of Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea, “but also in exploring and utilizing our very own marine and mineral resources.”
—WITH A REPORT FROM JANE BAUTISTA INQ