Kalayaan ‘tourists’ spot 2 ships ‘destroying’ coral reefs

Posted: 07/28/2011 in all marine news

By Philip C. Tubeza – 

Even from afar, one thing was obvious: They were not local.

The congressmen who went on a “peace mission” to the disputed Spratly Islands on Wednesday spotted two foreign ships conducting quarrying operations and “destroying” coral reefs considered part of Philippine territory.

A day after the trip, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone on Thursday called on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to file a formal protest once the ownership of the ships, which were escorted by at least eight smaller boats, was confirmed.

Residents of Pag-asa Island, the largest in the Kalayaan island chain claimed by the Philippines, suspect that the vessels were either Chinese or Vietnamese.

The quarrying operations were reported to be on a spot about 5 kilometers east of Pag-asa, a barangay under the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan province.

“Since it is near Pag-asa, which we’ve occupied since 1978, it is part of our barangay. Our problem is that we don’t have a Marina which could have given us a big enough presence there,” said Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon.

The mayor said foreign vessels had been seen anchored in the reef area over the last “seven to eight” years and numbered as many as eight on one occasion.

“They are quarrying and destroying the entire reef, hauling away rocks. I don’t know for what, but it might be for reclamation. If this reef is destroyed, then there would be no more fish,” Bito-onon said.

Fishing grounds

Bito-onon said the reef, known to locals as Kabilang Bahura, served as fishing grounds and a haven from storms for fishing boats not only from Pag-asa but also from other countries.

The mayor said Filipinos had planted seaweeds in the area.

“During stormy weather, you can find fishing boats from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam huddled there. We have no other shelter for ships here, not even in Pag-asa,” Bito-onon said.

The reef covers an area about twice the size of the 37-hectare Pag-asa Island, according to the official.

China occupies another reef known as Subi some 19 km southwest of Pag-asa, while Vietnam’s Pugad Island lies about 38 km north.

But Bito-onon said he did not notice any flag or name on the ships when he once led an armed team to see them up close.

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