MANILA (3rd UPDATE) – A Chinese fishing boat ran aground at Tubbataha Reef before midnight Monday, an official said, nearly three months after a similar incident involving a US Navy minesweeper destroyed a portion of the protected marine sanctuary.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), citing information from Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) Superintendent Angelique Songco, said a 48-meter-long Chinese fishing boat ran aground some 1.1 nautical miles east of the ranger station of the protected marine site.
PCG Spokesperson Commander Armand Balilo said the grounding incident in the UNESCO World Heritage site occurred at around 11:45 p.m.
The Chinese vessel, with hull number 63168, carried 12 people believed to be poachers who illegally entered Philippine waters.
Balilo said the BRP Romblon was to escort the 12 to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan for an investigation.
The vessel was also to be towed to the island province. An inventory of the items inside it was also expected to be carried out.
"The intention is to bring them to Puerto Princesa to escort them and turn them over to National Committee on Illegal Entrance for further investigation," Balilo earlier told ANC.
Balilo said Chinese fishermen frequently strayed into Philippine waters, but this was the first time in recent years that they had been detected as far south as Tubbataha.
Philippine Navy spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic, meanwhile, said they are now preparing the illegal entry and illegal fishing charges against the Chinese fishermen.
Fabic said an aerial survey will also be conducted to assess the extent of damage on the reef. The Chinese nationals will also be held responsible for the grounding incident.
The grounding of the vessel comes 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.
The Philippines accused China of occupying a shoal, which is home to a rich fishing ground, near its main island of Luzon last year. The Philippines has asked a United Nations panel to rule that China's claims are invalid.
However, Tubbataha reef is in the Sulu Sea, which is further southeast and not claimed by China. The Sulu and West Philippine seas are separated by Palawan, one of the Philippines' biggest islands.
The reef is about 1,600 kilometers southeast of Hainan island, China's nearest major landmass.
Balilo said he did not want to speculate how the Chinese fishermen reached Tubbataha.
But one navy official told AFP the fishermen likely sailed through the South China Sea and then a narrow strait at the southern tip of Palawan.
Tubbataha is famous among divers around the world for its walls of coral and diverse marine life that many say rival that of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Sailing in the Tubbataha park is illegal without a permit.
However, a US Navy minesweeper also ran aground on Tubbataha in January, and salvage crews had to break it down in pieces in a delicate operation that only ended on March 29.
Philippines authorities estimate that the USS Guardian damaged at least 2,345 square meters of the reef and are seeking P58 million ($1.4 million) in compensation. – with reports from Noel Alamar, Romy Luzares and Edwin Sevidal, dzMM; and Agence France-Presse