MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine authorities filed a poaching case and were preparing more charges against 12 detained Chinese fishermen who were aboard a vessel that ran aground in a protected coral reef.
The steel-hulled vessel strayed into the Tubbataha National Marine Park, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and struck an atoll earlier this week. The massive reef already had been damaged by a U.S. Navy ship that got stuck in January and had to be dismantled. Environmentalists argued the grounding showed the government needs to do more to protect endangered seas and biodiversity under threat from poaching and pollution.
Apart from the poaching charges, which carry up to 12 years imprisonment and fines of up to $300,000, the 12 Chinese fishermen also face complaints of damaging corals, attempting to bribe park rangers to avoid arrest and carrying explosives for fishing, Adelina Villena, a lawyer for the park, said Wednesday.
The Philippine military quoted the fishermen as saying they accidently wandered into Philippine waters from Malaysia. They were visited by Chinese consular officials in southwestern Palawan province, where they were detained.
Meanwhile, in Manila, a dozen protesters picked the Chinese Embassy.
President Benigno Aquino III expressed dismay that another vessel had run aground in Tubbataha, saying charges will be pursued against the fishermen.
"When you enter that zone, there is immediate presumption that you intend to poach, and there are corresponding penalties — there is imprisonment, there is fine — and our job as the executive department is to execute this law," Aquino said.
Philippine coast guard chief Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena said the 80,000 liters (17,598 gallons) of fuel in the vessel will be siphoned to make it lighter and allow for the ship's removal from the reef during high tide.
He said authorities were also trying to locate the owner of the ship.
Tubbataha is a 97,000-hectare (239,700-acre) marine sanctuary and popular diving destination 640 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Manila.
The U.S. Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian, ran aground in another Tubbataha atoll on Jan. 17 and was removed March 30 after being dismantled and lifted piece by piece by a crane to prevent more damage to the reef.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet said last week that it relieved the commanding officer, the executive officer and navigator, the assistant navigator and the officer of the deck of the Guardian after initial findings indicated all had failed to adhere to standard navigation procedures at the time of the grounding.