Coral rubble. The grounding of the USS Guardian damaged around 2,345 square meters of coral reefs in Tubbataha. Photo courtesy of WWF-Philippines
MANILA - The roughly $1.4 million fine that the US Navy will have to pay for damaging Tubbataha Reef is a "slap on the wrist," the UNESCO World Heritage site's top official said Friday.
The US Navy Avenger-class minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground on Tubbataha in the Sulu Sea on January 17.
It damaged approximately 2,345.67 square meters of the coral reefs, according to an assessment team that includes experts from the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), National Institute of Physics (NIP), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), De La Salle University (DLSU-SHIELDS), United States Navy (USN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009 imposes a fine of about $600 or P24,000 per square meter of damaged reef.
Other park rule violations raised the final fine total to slightly less than P60 million, or roughly $1.4 million, WWF-Philippines said in a press statement.
Tubbataha Management Office superintendent Angelique Songco said they will not ask for more.
"$1.4 million is but a slap on the wrist, as the salvage operation has been estimated to cost close to $45 million. However, we respect the rule of law and these are the fines stipulated," she said.
Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, vice-chairman and chief executive officer of WWF-Philippines, said a swift resolution of the case will allow Tubbataha park officials to build an endowment fund that will sustain its operations for years.
"The basic issue here is not tourism. It is food security. This fresh infusion of funds will allow TMO to concentrate on putting the money to good use – from building a better Ranger Station to upgrading their capacity to manage the country’s most productive coral reef," Tan said.
"Let us settle what must be settled, learn what must be learned, and move forward," he added.
The commanding officer and three crew of the USS Guardian have been relieved of their duties, according to the US Navy.
A statement from the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii said an initial investigation had found that the commander of the USS Guardian and three others had failed to "adhere to standard US Navy navigation procedures."
"The US Navy has the highest accountability standards and all four sailors were relieved by Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harley due to their role in the grounding and a loss of confidence," a statement said.
The Tubbataha incident has sparked widespread condemnation across the Philippines.
The US government has apologized for the accident, which it initially blamed on faulty maps.
The US government agreed to scrap and dismantle the ship -- valued at around $277 million -- after fears that towing it to deeper waters would inflict more damage on the reef.
Salvage teams removed the last piece of the 223-foot (68-meter) USS Guardian from the damaged reef on March 29. - with a report from Agence France-Presse