MANILA, Philippines - A US Navy warship that ran aground Thursday morning at Tubbataha Reef did not have a permit from the Philippine government to enter the UNESCO World Heritage Site, an environmental group said.
The USS Guardian, an Avenger class minesweeper belonging to the US Navy's 7th Fleet stationed in Japan, did not have clearance from Tubbataha Reef Natural Marine Park (TRNMP) authorities, according to World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines (WWF-Philippines).
The ship, which was involved in a 2007 incident
in China, ran aground on the northern tip of Tubbataha's South Atoll.
"Although no oil spill has been observed, so far, a quick ocular inspection showed that, at least, 10 meters of the minesweeper’s hull have damaged the reef," WWF-Philippines said in a press statement.
"Park rangers were told, by the vessel crew, that the US Embassy will coordinate and negotiate with the TMO, but so far, nobody has contacted the Park Office," it added.
The 97,000-hectare marine area, which is also a protected site under the Ramsar Convention (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance), is a priority conservation site of WWF-Philippines.
"Tubbataha Reef has been recognized as one of the best managed marine protected areas in the western Coral Triangle," the group said, adding that the reef contains unique biodiversity that can be found in only few of the world's remaining marine wilderness areas.
"WWF-Philippines calls on the US Navy, through the US Embassy, to coordinate directly with the government’s Tubbataha Management Office. The extent of damage to the reef must be determined. Furthermore, the swift, safe, and proper extrication of the vessel, should cause no further damage to the Park. This must be done without delay," it said.
WWF-Philippines said other ships that ran aground in the area have cooperated and paid fines "without much fuss."
"WWF calls on the US Navy to freely and willingly stand accountable. Something of value has been damaged here. There are amends that have to be made to the people of Palawan, and the fishermen of the Sulu Sea. Friends must show good faith," the group said.
WWF-Philippines urged the government to declare Tubbataha Reef a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) to more strictly control international maritime activities in its waters.
"This is not merely a tourism site. The issue here is food. And, the provinces that ring the Sulu Sea are at risk," it said.
The US embassy, in a statement to ABS-CBN News, confirmed the incident at the reef.
Tina Malone, US embassy press and information officer, said it happened "during a normal transit."
"No crewmembers were injured in the incident. 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," she said.
"The Government of the Philippines was promptly informed of the incident and offered to assist the U.S. Navy, and we greatly appreciate their offers of assistance," she added. "The safety of the Guardian's crew, and preventing harm to the environment are the U.S. Navy's top priorities."