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Kalayaan ‘tourists’ spot 2 ships ‘destroying’ coral reefs

Even from afar, one thing was obvious: They were not local.

The congressmen who went on a “peace mission” to the disputed Spratly Islands on Wednesday spotted two foreign ships conducting quarrying operations and “destroying” coral reefs considered part of Philippine territory.

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A day after the trip, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone on Thursday called on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to file a formal protest once the ownership of the ships, which were escorted by at least eight smaller boats, was confirmed.

Residents of Pag-asa Island, the largest in the Kalayaan island chain claimed by the Philippines, suspect that the vessels were either Chinese or Vietnamese.

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The quarrying operations were reported to be on a spot about 5 kilometers east of Pag-asa, a barangay under the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan province.

“Since it is near Pag-asa, which we’ve occupied since 1978, it is part of our barangay. Our problem is that we don’t have a Marina which could have given us a big enough presence there,” said Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon.

The mayor said foreign vessels had been seen anchored in the reef area over the last “seven to eight” years and numbered as many as eight on one occasion.

“They are quarrying and destroying the entire reef, hauling away rocks. I don’t know for what, but it might be for reclamation. If this reef is destroyed, then there would be no more fish,” Bito-onon said.

Fishing grounds

Bito-onon said the reef, known to locals as Kabilang Bahura, served as fishing grounds and a haven from storms for fishing boats not only from Pag-asa but also from other countries.

The mayor said Filipinos had planted seaweeds in the area.

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“During stormy weather, you can find fishing boats from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam huddled there. We have no other shelter for ships here, not even in Pag-asa,” Bito-onon said.

The reef covers an area about twice the size of the 37-hectare Pag-asa Island, according to the official.

China occupies another reef known as Subi some 19 km southwest of Pag-asa, while Vietnam’s Pugad Island lies about 38 km north.

But Bito-onon said he did not notice any flag or name on the ships when he once led an armed team to see them up close.

Rude crew

“They are like colorum vehicles. They haul off rocks and corals. We approached them once and fired warning shots but they did not leave,” the mayor said.

The crew members spoke a language he did not understand and “medyo bastos pa nga” (they were rude), Bito-onon recalled.

“They have water pumps and blowers to get sand off the stones before they cut these up. They have an underwater cutter,” he added.

“They might be using these big corals for reclamation … or to build better diving sites (on their islands) later. This is really sad. We don’t do this,” the mayor said.

“The way the intruders are on a rampage with our marine and coastal resources in the Spratlys, we might wake up one day with all the resources gone if these activities go unchecked,” said Evardone, one of the five congressmen who visited Pag-asa on Wednesday.

“We must exert all our efforts to protect the environment of the Spratlys. The destruction is massive. You can see the trail of sand underwater billowing from these ships,” he said.

Code of conduct

Evardone said such operations would be in violation of the 2002 code of conduct adopted by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) governing activities in what Manila now calls the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

“The code of conduct, which was signed by Asean and China, provide, among others, that parties may explore and undertake cooperative activities, including marine environmental protection,” he added.

Another lawmaker on the mission, Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello, said the group would raise the matter during budget deliberations with the DFA and military to see what could be done particularly to improve the capability of Filipino forces on the Kalayaan chain.

Bito-onon said he would give further briefings to military officials about the quarrying to see how it could be stopped.

Pag-asa has a Coast Guard detachment of only seven personnel and they only borrow boats from the municipality, he said.

Bito-onon also pointed out that it might be hard to accost the ships or make arrests because the reef lies 388 km from Palawan province or outside the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines occupied Pag-asa in 1978 before the exclusive zone was established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the mayor said.

Six Chinese and 120 Vietnamese nationals are currently detained at the Palawan provincial jail for poaching in Philippine waters, according to Palawan Gov. Baham Mitra.

Fisherman’s lament

A local fisherman, Rogelio Hingnit, said he once joined a Coast Guard run on the reef in July last year and came within hearing distance of one of the small foreign boats.

“I believe they’re Chinese because they were talking in Chinese and had equipment with Chinese markings,” he said.

“The ships usually have about 50 men on board while the smaller boats, which they call sampans, have as many as 20,” he added.

Hingnit said he and other Filipino fishermen could only go to the reef when the large foreign vessels were not around. “The longest time they’re gone would be about three weeks,” he said.

Because of the quarrying, the sea floor on the area has noticeably become “deeper by 3 feet, especially in the middle,” he said.

There has also been a noticeable drop in their catch. “Maybe the fish were frightened away,” the fisherman added.

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TAGS: Department of Foreign Affairs, formal protest, Kalayaan Island, Pag-asa Island, Peace Mission, Philippine territory, Spratly Island, territorial disputes
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