Tubbataha Demands Justice for the Reefs

The Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) is seeking an explanation from the United States authorities for the grounding of the USS Guardian (MCM 5), a 224ft minesweeper, on the South Atoll of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) at 2 a.m. on January 17, 2013.

The USS Guardian did not have a permit to enter TRNP, which is a marine protected area. According to a statement from US 7th Fleet Public Affairs, the USS Guardian had completed a routine fuel stop in Subic Bay and was on the way to Puerto Princesa, for a short visit.

The US Naval vessel did not inform marine park rangers of its presence and situation and was later discovered only through radar at 4:00 a.m.

Marine park rangers radioed the USS Guardian, introducing themselves as law enforcers. They informed them of their violations and announced their intention to board the vessel. However, upon approaching, they saw soldiers taking position with their weapons and, since radio contact was unanswered, the boarding protocol was aborted.

“The ship’s commander ordered a general alert and deployed personnel into battle position when our rangers tried to approach their ship to assess the situation, forcing them to back off,” said Protected Area Superintendent Angelique Songco.

The TMO is planning to lodge a formal protest with the US government. The act of preventing the marine park rangers from fulfilling their duty to board vessels which illegally enter the park demonstrated lack of good faith and disrespect for Philippine authority and its agents.

Upon becoming informed of the grounding the TMO immediately reported the incident to the Philippine Naval Forces and Coast Guard and requested assistance. The Philippine Air Force Nomad  then scheduled a flight to Tubbataha to assess the condition of the ship.

The Philippine Navy PG 383 departed Puerto Princesa on January 18 for an initial investigation. Although the park management is sure the ship damaged the coral, it cannot yet estimate the extent of the damage.

“We don’t know yet how much damage has been done. We can only wait till they leave before we take a look at the area,” said Songco. Joint assessment of coral damage needs to be undertaken to determine culpability of the responsible party as to the affected resources.

The removal of the USS Guardian from the reef is of utmost importance as weather conditions could further deteriorate and cause an escalation of the damage to the reefs.

A second US vessel, the USS Sea Champion, arrived in Tubbataha at 10 a.m. on January 18 to assist the USS Guardian and its personnel.

The USS Guardian has violated several sections of the Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) Act of 2009. These are Section 19 (Unauthorized Entry), Section 20 (Damages to the Reef), Section 21 (Non-payment of Conservation Fees), Section 26 (Destroying, Disturbing Resources), Section 30 (Obstruction of Law Enforcement Officer).

Lt. Col. Jason Chamness of Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group has expressed regret over the incident and said that they are doing their utmost of ensure the safety of the personnel on board the vessel and that no further damage in inflicted on the reefs. It is still unknown why the USS Guardian entered TRNP, an investigation is ongoing.