US Navy ship damaged coral in Tubbataha

MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – A US Navy minesweeper ran aground near Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park management is now investigating coral damage, a park official said on Thursday, January 17.

Protected area superintendent and head of the Tubbataha management office Angelique Songco told Rappler that the ship "entered without a permit" in violation of section 19 of Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) Act of 2009.

Asked if there will be damage to the coral, she said: "Definitely, yes."

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park official explained that the amount of damage to the coral will be determined by a joint team of the USS Guardian and personnel from the marine park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.

Songco added that the once the damage is assessed, the owner of the ship – the US Navy – can expect to pay P12,000 per sqm of destroyed reefs.

"The most probable cause is mis-navigation," said Major Oliver Banaria, commander of the AFP's 6th Civil Relations Group based in Palawan.

In a statement, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said it is closely coordinating with the US Embassy, the Department of National Defense, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Philippine Coast Guard on this.

The DFA also said it expects the Philippine government to look into the incident.

DIVING PARADISE. Tubbataha is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993 and considered a paradise for scuba diving. From from the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park official website

DIVING PARADISE. Tubbataha is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993 and considered a paradise for scuba diving.

From from the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park official website

Rangers barred by US Navy

The US ship ran aground in Tubbataha Reef early morning Thursday.

A statement from the US Pacific Fleet revealed that the USS Guardian, an Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, ran aground at 2.25 am near the world heritage site, which is about 98 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa City.

The Park sent its Rangers Thursday morning to visit the ship but were barred by the Americans, according to Songco.

"We have not yet been able to approach the boat as there are armed soldiers on deck," she said.

As well as unauthorized entry, the USS Guardian is also liable to be charged with destroying and disturbing resources inside the marine protected area under section 26 of the TRNP Act.

Park officials have not heard yet from the US Navy, the source added.

RICH IN MARINE LIFE. From tiny pygmy seahorses to the gigantic whale shark, Tubbataha is teeming with marine life. Photo by Jiggy Santillan

RICH IN MARINE LIFE. From tiny pygmy seahorses to the gigantic whale shark, Tubbataha is teeming with marine life.

Photo by Jiggy Santillan

US ship came from Subic

Banaria said the incident was reported to them at 3 am.

The ship came from a routine port call in Subic, Zambales last Monday, January 14.

"The Avenger-Class ship had just completed a port call in Subic Bay, Olongapo City and was en route to her next port of call when the grounding occurred. The ship is currently stuck on the reef, approximately 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan. The crew is currently working to determine the best method of safely extracting the ship," the US Navy added in its statement.

No injuries were reported among the 80-man crew and no fuel leak has been discovered.

A Nomad Islander plane from the Philippine Air Force conducted air reconnaissance over the area, while a patrol gunboat from the Coast Guard is on standby to assist the US ship.

PRISTINE REEFS. The coral reefs of Tubbataha are healthy and free from parasites such as the nasty crown-of-thorns starfish that eats polyps, the live organisms that make up the coral. Photo by Lory Tan/WWF

PRISTINE REEFS. The coral reefs of Tubbataha are healthy and free from parasites such as the nasty crown-of-thorns starfish that eats polyps, the live organisms that make up the coral.

Photo by Lory Tan/WWF

'Baffling and lamentable'

In a statement, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called the incident "baffling and lamentable" and said that "a quick ocular inspection" shows that at least 10 m of the ship's hull have damaged the reef.

WWF called on the US Navy to coordinate directly with the park management through the embassy.

"The extent of damage to the reef must be determined. Furthermore, the swift, safe, and proper extrication of the vessel, should cause no further damage to the Park. This must be done without delay," the statement added.

Tubbataha – a multi-awarded conservation project and one of the world's best dive sites – is a 97,030-hectare World Heritage Site with two main atolls home to a huge variety of marine life species including large pelagics such as manta rays and sharks as well as pristine coral.

2013 is the 25th anniversary of the area's recognition by UNESCO. - Rappler.com