Fisheries code empowers PH to fine Chinese vessel for just being in Reed Bank

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – The fisheries code of the Philippines allows the Duterte government to, as early as now, impose a fine on the Chinese vessel that sunk on June 9 a Philippine fishing boat at the Reed Bank (Recto Bank).

China though, as echoed by the Duterte government, claims it was an accidental collision at sea and not an intentional ramming.

Chel Diokno, lawyer for fishermen in an ongoing writ of Kalikasan case at the Supreme Court, said whether it was an accident can be treated as a secondary question.

“Why is no one from our government asking the basic question – why was the Chinese vessel in Philippine territory in the first place? What was it doing here?” Diokno said in a statement.

Diokno added: “Regardless of whether the collision of Yuemaobinyu 42212 and F/B GEM-VIR was deliberate or accidental, the Chinese vessel should be held accountable for entering our territory and violating our fisheries laws.”

The incident took place near Recto Bank (Reed Bank), an oil-rich underwater reef formation that belongs to the Philippines but is coveted by China.

The fisheries code is very clear: Section 91 says it shall be unlawful for any foreign person, corporation or entity to fish or operate any fishing vessel in Philippine waters.”

The law adds: “The entry of any foreign fishing vessel in Philippine waters shall constitute a prima facie evidence that the vessel is engaged in fishing in Philippine waters.”

Moreover, the law says any violator "shall be punished by an administrative fine of Six hundred thousand US dollars (US$600,000.00) to One million US dollars (US$1,000,000.00) or its equivalent in Philippine currency."

“Why is BFAR not exercising its power to make a summary finding of the administrative liability of the Chinese vessel (Yuemaobinyu 42212) and its owner, and impose a fine of US$600,000 to US$1,000,000 on them?” Diokno said.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is the agency primarily tasked to implement the fisheries code.

However, the Department of Agriculture (DA), Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) each have their own tasks under the law.

On July 2, the Supreme Court will hear in oral arguments the Writ of Kalikasan case against the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte which is accused of neglecting Philippine marine rights by not enforcing the fisheries code.

Diokno, lawyer for the fishermen who are petitioners in that case, said that the Duterte administration is showing another blatant refusal of implementing the fisheries code in dealing with the sinking ship incident.

Diokno also pointed out that there is a National Committee on Illegal Entrants (NCIE) composed of the DOJ, PNP, PCG, Navy, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Department of National Defense (DND), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and others that should monitor entry of illegal fishing vessels to Philippine waters.

“The problem is not the law—it’s with those who’re supposed to implement it. As Chief Executive, the buck stops with you, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte,” said Diokno.

Joint probe

China and the Philippines have agreed to a joint inquiry into the sinking of a Philippine vessel at the Reed Bank (Recto Bank).

China has admitted that it was a Chinese fishing vessel that was involved in the incident, but claimed it was an accidental collision at sea, contrary to the claims of the Filipino crew on board and the initial claim of the defense department that the Chinese vessel rammed and sunk the Filipino boat.

A lot of adjustments to official government statements have been made since, but always close to the narrative of China, including the newly-announced joint probe.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who supports the joint probe to achieve mutual conclusions, said the China-Philippines inquiry can also exact accountabilities. Guevarra added that the inquiry is being done by the Philippine side through the marine board, under the Department of Transportation (DoTr).

“This joint inquiry may also serve as the forum wherein accountabilities may be determined and allocated, and restitution or reparation, if due, may be effected,” said Guevarra.

But Guevarra cautioned against being adversarial towards China, even saying that “legal action is, and should always be, the last resort.”

Guevarra, as DOJ Secretary, is among the respondents in the writ of kalikasan case where the Duterte government must explain alleged neglect in the West Philippine Sea.

'Betrayal' 

In a separate statement, former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said the Duterte government “betrayed our nation” when it gave “political preference to the pronouncements of China.” 

The 22 Filipino fishermen were left at sea after their boat sunk. They said they were flashed with lights by the Chinese vessel but it still left them alone in the ocean. A Vietnamese vessel rescued them hours after.

“Our fishermen of Mindoro and Zambales deserve protection in our own territory, under our own laws. Sinserong pagtanggol sa kanilang pagkatao ang kailangang marinig. (They need to be sincerely defended and listened to),” said Sereno. – Rappler.com  

Editor's note: An earlier version of the article said the Philippines can fine China up to $200,000, the amount stated in the 1998 version of the fisheries code. The law was amended in 2015, increasing the maximum amount to $1 million.

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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