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Editorial: The Rape of Tubbataha; Chinese Poaching 'A Simple Case of Violation of Philippine Laws'

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MANILA, The Philippines -- There is one thing that sets us apart as a winner among our global neighbors. We may be losing out on economic gains, on political maturity and on being a choice destination for tourists and investors, but we undoubtedly have the richest and most diverse marine life in the world. There is, however, something here that scares me. We are a people prone to shooting our own feet. How much longer can we hang on to the one remaining asset we have, which our neighbors in the region lust after?

Just before Christmas, particularly on Dec. 21, a Chinese fishing vessel with 30 Chinese fishermen on board were caught red-handed poaching or taking rare and endangered species of fish in our area of jurisdiction, just 1.5 miles from the Tubbataha Reef which was declared by no less than United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Tubbataha’s reef form the core of the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Eco-Region, hailed as one of the world’s most productive ecosystems.

The 30 Chinese poachers were caught with tons of high-value fish including 359 napoleon wrasses—locally known as mameng—an endangered species, as well as groupers and other rare fish varieties. The collection, possession, transport or trade of the napoleon wrasse is illegal and carries with it a fine of $2,400 for each fish as well as a prison term of up to 20 years. The wrasse is prized as a delicacy and may sell for as much as $100 for every kilogram. Of the fishes poached, 59 napoleon wrasses and a large number of other varieties have died as they were kept in dark holding tanks in the vessel with no food to nourish them. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Puerto Princesa is now temporarily holding the fish in sea pens to nourish them back to health before they are released back to the reefs.

The captain of the ship and five of the arrested fishermen were released by the authorities even before they were put behind bars at the Palawan Provincial Jail because they immediately posted bail. The 24 others posted bail recently too, making all 30 of them now free while their cases remain pending for trial. Reports reached the Tubbataha Marine Office manager, Angelique Songco, that all 30 Chinese poachers accused of violating several provisions of the Philippine Fisheries Code and the Wildlife Resources and Conservation Act now have airline tickets and may flee the country any time soon leaving their case hanging. Songco said that the legal counsel of the marine office, Gerthie Anda, has applied for a hold departure order before the court, but it is still set for hearing next week.

There are a number of strange circumstances about this case which should strike a chord in the heart of every Filipino who cares about the natural heritage and resources of this country into vigilance and action. Several Filipinos, representing themselves to be the owners of South Pacific Inter-Marketing Corp., have taken the cudgels for the Chinese poachers. They claimed that their company chartered the Chinese vessel Hoi Wan to transport the fish to Hong Kong, under pain of being themselves held liable for criminal offenses. Yet, according to Anda, the company does not appear to be registered in the Securities and Exchange Commission. This company is likewise renting an apartment in Puerto Princesa to house the Chinese fishermen who are out on bail. All together, the Chinese poachers paid more than a million pesos in cash bail bond which they did not seem to have difficulty raising.

Two, the People’s Republic of China, through its Ambassador Li Jinjun, has written a letter addressed to Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo on Dec. 28 saying that there should be “a proper way to resolve the issue as soon as possible.” The communiqué added that it would be appreciated if Romulo would pay personal attention to the matter so that “prompt measures would be taken to ensure the vessel and the crewmembers would be released as soon as possible so as to create a favorable atmosphere for the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao and lay solid foundations for the fishery cooperation between two countries as well as relations between the Philippines and Hong Kong.”

Environmental rights advocates and lawyers of the Philippine Bar Association and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines have joined hands in a bid to ensure that this case will not be washed under again as had been the fate of previous illegal poaching cases in our seas. Aside from the lawyers, several non-government organizations, most prominent of which is the World-Wide Fund for Nature Philippines, are likewise intently watching over this case. But given the track record of our government officials in terms of enforcement of laws and our wishy-washy and pushover reputation in the handling of matters that involve foreign relations, every nationalistic Filipino has a right to be concerned and be afraid.

In 2002, 95 Chinese nationals were arrested for poaching in the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park. They were caught in possession of 50 sea turtles, shark meat, a roll of fuse for explosives, blasting caps, 10 fan corals, 10 sacks of dried sea cucumber, about 400 kg of dried clam meat and 13 live napoleon wrasses. The sea turtles, the giant clam shells and the napoleon wrasses are all endangered species protected under the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species—an international agreement banning their possession and trade. The accused poachers in 2002 somehow got away without accounting for their crimes.

The chief executive of WWF Philippines, Lorenzo Tan, says that 90 percent of our fish stocks are now gone. Considering that our population depends largely on seafood for its protein requirements, illegal fishing is catastrophic, he stresses. So why are we sitting around as though our fish supply is unlimited and we can afford to be generous to thieves and poachers?

Should we allow this case to be treated as a matter involving foreign relations and a proper subject of foreign intervention? This is a simple case of violation of Philippine laws, nothing more. A case of foreign fishermen caught illegally fishing and poaching rare and endangered species of fishes in our coastal jurisdiction is violation of our laws. All that has to be done is to prosecute the violators in accordance with our judicial system and hold them accountable for their crimes. A communiqué should not erase crimes as easily as they were committed if we wish the world to respect us as a nation that can stand up for its rights in the family of nations.

The handling of the custody issue over the accused Daniel Smith in the “Nicole” rape case proved us wanting in strength of character as a nation. The vacillation and the inability to get our act together reverberated through to our neighbors. The present case of the Chinese poachers, if again mishandled by our law enforcement and judicial authorities, could be viewed by the world as an abdication of our very own sovereignty and capacity to protect ourselves in the community of nations. The prospects are frightening.

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