MANILA – A Philippine court has found 12 Chinese fishermen guilty of violating Philippine laws for fishing inside Tubbataha Reef, a protected marine area.
The 12 fishermen were found guilty of violating Republic Act 10067, or the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park (TRNP) Act of 2009, particularly the provision which bars any foreign person, foreign corporation or foreign entity from fishing, gathering and/or purchasing or possessing any fishery products within the protected body of water.
The crew members were sentenced to 6 to 10 years imprisonment, while the boat's captain was sentenced to up to 12 years imprisonment.
They are also required to pay a fine of $100,000 each. Failure to pay the fines will result in subsidiary imprisonment of 6 months, the court said.
The Chinese nationals were apprehended in Tubbataha last April 2013 after their vessel ran aground in the protected marine area. Boxes of pangolin carcasses were later discovered in their boat.
Charges of bribery were also filed against the fishermen for allegedly trying to give $2,400 to the park rangers who spotted them.
The grounding of the vessel came as the Philippines and China are locked in a bitter dispute over competing territorial claims to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia.
However, Tubbataha Reef is in the Sulu Sea, which is well within the Philippines' territory and is not being claimed by China. Sulu Sea is separated from the South China Sea by the island of Palawan.
Last May, 11 Chinese fishermen were also caught allegedly poaching off Half Moon Shoal in the contested Spratly Islands in South China Sea. Their vessel was found loaded with a huge haul of turtles.
Two of them were later released and deported to China because they were apparently minors.
The arrest drew the ire of Beijing, which urged the Philippines to release the fishermen and the vessel. China demanded the release, saying Half Moon Shoal is part of Chinese territory.
The trial of the remaining Chinese fishermen has been stalled due to the lack of an interpreter for them.