MANILA, Philippines --- Malacañang yesterday assured that the Philippines will pursue claims over the damage done to the Tubbataha Reef, belying speculations that the government is reluctant to go after the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian over the destruction.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the Republic Act (RA) 10067 will be enforced on the damage wrought on the Tubbataha Reef.
“We have the law. We will enforce the law,” Lacierda said, noting that the Tubbataha Reef is a natural treasure and a World Heritage Site.
Lacierda belied speculations that the Philippine government is hesitant to act against the US because it is an ally.
“Not that we are minimizing or reluctant to press our claim. We talked to (Foreign Affairs) Sec. (Albert) del Rosario last Monday and we are determined to press our claim,” he said.
“The discussion on the claims itself will be done by the DFA and the US embassy,” he added.
The Palace official said that what is important now is to extricate the ship from the Tubbataha Reef.
“We will do the best we can on the extrication of the ship, that it will be done with minimal damage to the reef,” Lacierda said.
Based on the assessment of Coast Guard divers, Lacierda said approximately 1,000 square meters of the reef was damaged. The assessment team also revealed that the US Navy ship’s propeller and rudder had been severely damaged.
But Lacierda said another assessment will be done after the ship is extricated.
“We cannot but emphasize the importance of this reef as a heritage site and the instructions of the President were very, very clear: first priority is let’s take out the ship with minimal damage. That goes to show that we are very concerned with the situation in the reef,” he said.
President Aquino himself had directed concerned agencies to ensure that there will be minimal damage to the Tubbataha Reef during the salvage operations.
The USS Guardian was from Subic for a regular port call last week and was en route to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, for another port call when it got stuck in the Tubbataha Reef, the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the country at 97,030 hectares. The reef lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the geographic center of world marine biodiversity.
It was included as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1993 and inscribed on the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance in 1999.
To avoid a repeat of the US Navy minesweeper mishap, Western Samar Rep. Mel Senen Sarmiento said there is an urgent need to put up visual and digital navigational markers that would warn ships that the area is shallow and not fit for big sea vessels.
Sarmiento said that instead of simply demanding for damage compensation from the United States, the Philippine government should first send its own marine scientists to conduct a “science-based” damage assessment and figure out the best and most effective way to rehabilitate the marine sanctuary.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Sen. Loren Legarda sought a full-dress probe into the grounding of the US naval vessel.
“There should be full disclosure and accounting of the total damages arising from the incident which will help strengthen existing mechanisms to prevent a future similar occurrence,” she said.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic, Philippine Navy (PN) spokesman, said that based on their assessment, the grounding of the US minesweeper was an “honest mistake.”
Fabic likewise dismissed speculations that the US vessel was in the area conducting surveillance operations when it ran aground.
“Based on the pictures that we’ve seen, all their (USS Guardian) equipment are secured. So it appears they have no intent to conduct surveillance in the area,” said Fabic.
Fabic also expressed confidence that the PN’s nautical charts are accurate and free of error. He said that so far the nautical maps carry accurate and error-free details.
“It’s the same chart we have been using and we consider it to be still accurate,” said Fabic.
He said PN ships use paper maps or the basic nautical charts, which he said are deemed still accurate. (With reports from Rolly T. Carandang, Mario B. Casayuran, and Elena L. Aben)