US Navy ship stuck in Tubbataha raises questions

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - A US Navy warship that ran aground on the Tubbataha Reefs yesterday did not coordinate with local authorities about its passage, something that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said was contrary to the protocol among foreign and local ships crossing the waters near the World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea.

"Why were they even near Tubbataha? The Sulu Sea is so vast, and it takes 10 hours from Puerto Princesa to reach it. Why couldn't they see it when they had all the state-of-the-art maps and navigation systems?" said Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, WWF-Philippines vice chairman and chief executive officer.

"I understand that it was an accident. But it seems they are not showing good faith, considering we're supposed to be allies, and we even have the Visiting Forces Agreement," Tan said.

The ship "entered without a permit" in violation of Republic Act No. 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, Angelique Songco, a protected area superintendent and head of the Tubbataha management office, told Rappler.

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies at the centre 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.

Mum on damage to reefs

The US Seventh Fleet said the USS Guardian (MCM-5), a 68-metre minesweeper, grazed the reef and got stuck some 128 kilometres off Palawan as it sailed off to its next port call before dawn yesterday.

"The Avenger-Class ship had just completed a port call on Subic Bay, Olongapo City and was en route to her next port of call when the grounding occurred. The government of the Philippines was promptly informed of the incident," the Seventh Fleet said in a report posted on its website.

The Seventh Fleet said that "no one was hurt" in the incident and that the cause of the grounding was being investigated.

"The crew is currently working to determine the best method of safely extracting the ship. The cause of the grounding is under investigation," the US naval unit said.

The Seventh Fleet's report was, however, silent on possible damage on the Tubbataha Reef, an atoll coral reef hosting some of the densest concentrations of marine life and is known as one of the world's best diving spots.

Resupply, recreation in Subic

The ship, among US naval assets deployed in Sasebo, Japan, arrived in the Philippines and docked at the former American naval base on Subic Bay on Sunday for a routine refeuelling, resupply and rest and recreation stop.

The ship, manned by some 80 sailors, including Filipino-Americans, also made a brief visit to Puerto Princesa before heading off to its next port call early Thursday. No media coverage was arranged for the port call.

PH kept in dark

Tan questioned a US Embassy statement that the US Navy had promptly informed Philippine authorities about the ship running aground.

"The question is: Who did they inform? The governor of Palawan (Abraham Mitra) did not know. The Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board did not know. The Western Command (of the Armed Forces of the Philippines) did not know," he said.

Tan said the Tubbataha park rangers only knew about what happened when they spotted the ship.

"There were eight rangers on speed boats. And they could not even approach. The ship was on general quarters (alarm)," he said, referring to an announcement on naval ships preparing the ship's crew for battle or imminent damage.

10 metres of coral ruined

WWF is one of the partners of the Tubbataha Management Office, the implementing arm of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB), the agency carrying out day-to-day operations in the protection and conservation effort for the reef.

The ship might have destroyed "at least 10 metres" of coral reef serving as haven to countless species of marine life, according to Tan.

He said information relayed to him following an aerial survey of the site of the accident by the Philippine Air Force appeared to indicate that the USS Guardian rammed through at least 10 metres of coral.

"By our estimates, the size of the damage to the reef is at least 10 linear metres. Multiply that by the width of the ship and that could be the entire area of damage," he said in an interview by phone.

According to the USS Guardian website, the width of the minesweeper is 11.88 metres or 39 feet.

Tan said it was difficult to assess the extent of damage, as well as its implications in the marine life in the area, but it would definitely affect the fishing grounds in surrounding waters.

"It's possible that the corals will not grow back at all," he said when asked how long the reef would recover.

Pay fine

Tan said the US government must own up to its responsibility and pay the standard fines imposed by the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board.

"They must do as Greenpeace did," he said, referring to the 2005 incident when the environmentalist organisation's ship ran aground and damaged a reef in the Tubbataha, for which it paid a fine of almost 400,000 pesos (US$9,800).

The US Navy may be fined 12,000 pesos per square metre of damaged corals.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the government was concerned about the damage the ship's impact may have caused on the reef.

"For the moment, our main concern is to ensure safety of navigation in the area and to mitigate this incident's impact on the reef, which is a natural and national treasure," said Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, spokesperson of the DFA.

Hernandez said it was coordinating with the US Embassy, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defence in investigating the incident.

No oil leak

In a statement issued late Thursday, the US Embassy said the ship that ran aground off Palawan was not leaking oil into Philippine waters.

"The extent of damage to the ship and the cause of the grounding are under investigation, but there are no initial reports of leaking of fuel or oil," the embassy said.

It further said that safeguarding the ship's crew and preventing environmental damage "are the US Navy's top priorities."

The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) questioned the presence of the US minesweeper, saying it "again raises questions regarding US military presence in the country" under the Philippine-US Visiting Force Agreement.

"It appears that the country is a de facto outpost for refeuelling, supply and rest and recreation, much like during the time of US bases, but minus the formality and absent a treaty," said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr.

The Philippines ousted US bases in 1991 but remains a steady defence ally of the United States, with a standing Mutual Defence Treaty for six decades.

Last year, US ships made 197 port calls in the Philippines, while some 444 American aircraft were cleared for landing in the country's airports, according to the DFA.

The incident followed the recovery of an unarmed US aerial target drone off the coast of Masbate earlier this month. The Philippine government ruled out any sovereignty issues in the incident as the drone was not launched within Philippine air space.

The US Embassy said the drone, the type used for military drills and not for surveillance, was launched from a US Navy destroyer in September during large-scale US naval exercises in Guam and was swept to the Philippine coast by ocean currents.

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