Press Update:

Last week’s grounding of the USS Guardian is but the latest in a long line of scrapes between ships and reefs. On 5 February 2009, the USS Port Royal, a guided missile cruiser, ran aground less than a kilometer from the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii to destroy about 890 square meters of coral reef.

After much media furor, the United States Navy promised to pay the State of Hawaii $8.5 million to settle claims over coral reef damage, plus another $6.5 million for reef restoration – including the reattachment of 5400 coral colonies to expedite regrowth. The total assistance provided by the US Navy amounted to $15 million – about P610 million.

For the Philippines, Tubbataha is the cradle of marine life. Formed from the eruption of undersea volcanoes nearly 15 million years ago, Tubbataha or ‘long reef’ in the Samal tongue features dramatic coral-coated slopes and drop-offs patrolled by over 600 species of fish – ranging from the fingernail-sized Striped Triplefin (Helcogramma striata) to the truck-sized Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus), largest of all fish.

A multi-awarded UNESCO World Heritage site which celebrates its Silver Anniversary in 2013, the Park boasts of unparalleled biodiversity levels. Whereas a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef annually yields up to 40 metric tonnes of seafood yearly, Tubbataha generates over 200. Though fishing within the park is not allowed, the spillover effects continually seed the far reaches of the Sulu Sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.

Today, the 68-meter long USS Guardian still sits on the northwestern portion of the Tubbataha Reefs’ South Atoll, its wood-and-fiberglass hull breached and taking a pounding from 10-foot waves brought in by the Hanging Amihan – the bitter northeasterly winds from Siberia.

A composite team from the US Navy, Philippine Navy and Philippine Coastguard are now braving violent currents and swells to remove 15,000 gallons of fuel from the stricken ship. If successful, marine engineers will attempt to de-water and refloat the craft using a crane vessel – a ship specialized in lifting heavy loads.

“Like a ticking taxi meter, the passing of each minute and hour raises the stakes,” says WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, a member of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board. “However, safety must be chosen over speed – hasty efforts might do further harm to the reef.”

 

TALE OF TWO SHIPS

According to preliminary assessments, the area damaged by the 1300-tonne USS Guardian spans at least 1600 square meters – almost twice the area flattened by the USS Port Royal in Hawaii in 2009.

Tubbataha Reefs Park Superintendent Angelique Songco says that under Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, a fine of about $300 or P12,000 per square meter is mandatory, plus another $300 or so per square meter for rehabilitation efforts.

Given the estimated size of damaged reef, the minimum fine would be $960,000 or P38 million – still miniscule compared with the fines paid by the US for its 2009 Port Royal incident. Further sanctions include unauthorized park entry, non-payment of conservation fees, destruction of resources and the obstruction of law enforcement.

Explains Songco, “This is not the first grounding incident in the park – all previous cases paid the appropriate fines for damages.  We will not ask for anything more than what the law requires. We wish only for the US Navy to be responsible enough when entering our protected areas.”

In an official statement, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas, Jr. stated that the US Government will take steps to address the environmental issues that have arisen from the incident.

Concludes Tan, “Clearly, parallelisms between the USS Guardian and the USS Port Royal can be made. In the case of the Port Royal, the US Navy did the right thing by working cooperatively to fund the restoration and continued protection of the damaged reef. It is our hope that the same respect accorded to the people of Hawaii be given to the Philippines. For even though corals, sponges and fish shall one day return to the stricken site – the scars borne by the USS Guardian will take years to heal.

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