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Tubbataha Intrigue: Search on for Companion to Chinese Boat Caught with Protected Species at Philippines World Heritage Site

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MANILA, The Philippines -- Environmental groups and beleaguered rangers of the Tubbataha National Marine Park on Friday challenged President Arroyo to stand firm in the case of a 30-man Chinese crew caught with hundreds of the "Mameng" (Napoleon Wrasse), a protected fish species.

Calls for the prosecution of the Hoi Wan's crew grew louder as diplomats indicated the incident has begun shaping up as an international case.

Sources at the Department of Foreign Affairs said that Hong Kong and Malaysia have made inquiries about the Hoi Wan case following statements by the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

The Chinese government, which has protested the seizure of the Hoi Wan, insists on the release of the crew.

Chinese officials have told Filipino diplomats the crew was merely passing through the Tubbataha area on their way to Hong Kong. The Hoi Wan, the Chinese claim, came from Malaysia and Tawi-Tawi on a fish-buying expedition. Chinese officials also said its cargo is covered by Philippine government permits.

Hong Kong officials are questioning the Chinese claim, said a DFA source who requested anonymity because he had no clearance to speak on the issue.

Hong Kong, the source said, recently signed the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). The Mameng is protected by that document. In the Philippines and other countries, possession alone of the fish is a crime.

Malaysia, the same source said, is also now checking on the Hoi Wan's movements. The Philippine's neighbor is touchy about security issues and the DFA source said a Malaysian official raised some concerns about possible smuggling.

Both countries, the source said, have asked about the whereabouts of a second boat believed to be a companion of the Hoi Wan, which was intercepted on December 21 after a 30-minute chase in the 33,000-hectare national park.

Hard to track

World Wildlife Fund-Philippines chief executive officer, Lory Tan, said another ship docked in Tawi-Tawi around the same time as the Hoi Wan.

Tan's organization is a private, nonprofit group. But in the earlier days of the Hoi Wan probe, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said to coordinate with Tan for developments. Tan has since been issuing news advisories to media, indicating he is in touch with officials of various government agencies.

Tan's latest installment of his electronic journals said the F/V Tai Sha arrived at the Port of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi on November 11, two days before the Hoi Wan. Both vessels obtained a fishery quarantine service inspection clearance from the local office of the Bureau of Fisheries and Agricultural Resources.

South Pacific Inter Marketing (SPIM), a Philippine firm that claims to manage the Hoi Wan, has provided government authorities with documents of both the Hoi Wan and the Tai Chai.

The November 13 Immigration Boarding Formality for the Hoi Wan had China/Hong Kong listed as port of registry, and Sibutu, a Malaysian district bordering the Philippines, as the next port of call.

While SPIM presented a Coast Guard boarding certificate for the Hoi Wan, this had no date of issuance, no destination, and no departure date.

The SPIM operations manager Nixon Edora called the Bonggao immigration office to inform them that Hoi Wan was leaving the Philippines on December 3 and the Tai Chai on December 8.


Immigration officials in Bonggao said they have no record of either ships actually passing through on their way to Hong Kong from Malaysia. BFAR Director Malcolm

Sarmiento said the Hoi Wan have no permit to fish, much less buy, protected or endangered species.

Two weeks after they were supposed to have officially left the country, Tan noted, Tubbataha rangers spotted the Hoi Wan inside the protected reef. When they boarded the vessel, they found the fish, 11 sampans and a huge collection of compressor equipment and other implements for live fishing.

Tan said WWF offices in Sabah and Hong Kong are on alert and "working closely" with foreign and Philippine governments "for preparation of appropriate local responses."

Tan said his organization also partners with TRAFFIC, a group that has tracks illegal wildlife trade worldwide.


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