‘Severe damage’ noted in coral reef, marine environment in Rozul Reef, Escoda Shoal

Screenshot from PCG video
Screenshot from PCG video

“SEVERE damage” to the marine environment and coral reef in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal, which are both within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), has been noted, said the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Monday, September 18, 2023.

PCG spokesperson for West Philippine Sea (WPS) Commodore Jay Tarriela said in a statement that from August 9 to September 11, 2023, the PCG conducted extensive underwater surveys of the seabed of the Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal.

In the same period, 33 Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels were monitored in the vicinity of Rozul Reef and 15 in Escoda Shoal.

Tarriela said the continued swarming for indiscriminate illegal and destructive fishing activities of the CMM in the area may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment in the WPS features.

“The results of these surveys showed that the marine ecosystem in the subject WPS features appeared lifeless, with minimal to no signs of life,” said Tarriela.

“Moreover, the surveys conducted in Escoda Shoal revealed visible discoloration of its seabed, strongly indicating that deliberate activities may have been undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain,” he added.

The official said the presence of crushed corals strongly suggests a potential act of dumping, possibly involving the same dead corals that were previously processed and cleaned before being returned to the seabed.

The PCG emphasized the importance of protecting and preserving the marine environment, which plays a crucial role in sustaining marine life and supporting local communities.

In a television interview, Senator Risa Hontiveros said the matter of China's incursions in the WPS is already ripe for the conduct of a Senate investigation.

“Kasi it would not be the first time na nag-environmental degradation ang Tsina sa ating dagat. They also dredged our sea floor to invent their artificial islands, militarize them, within the West Philippine Sea and our exclusive economic zone, para i-claim na teritoryo nila,” she said.

“A few years ago, ‘yung isang ship nila, ay sumagasa sa isang bahura, kaya at the time siningil ko sila, kasi there is a way na i-kwenta ‘yung economic value ng mga ganyang marine ecosystems. In the same way, na years ago, may utang ang US sa atin because one of their vessels crashed into reefs in the Tubbataha. Salamat sa Armed Forces of the Philippines sa pagbunyag nito, I think it deserves an investigation, at idagdag natin sa humahabang litsahan ng utang ng Tsina sa ating bansa,” she added.

In a statement, Senator Francis Tolentino, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Maritime and Admiralty Zones, said the recently discovered coral harvesting in Rozul Reef might be a prelude to reclamation.

"May iba pang plano siguro po riyan, di lang 'yong pagkuha ng corals at pagdurog nito. Iyong pagpatay kasi ng corals ay prelude sa isang bagay -- pag pinatay mo iyon, pwede ka nang mag-reclaim,” he said.

(Maybe there is another plan, not just taking corals and crushing them. Because killing corals is a prelude to something -- when you kill it, you can reclaim it.)

He said that such an act is a violation to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

In a forum, former Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza urged President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to authorize the Office of the Solicitor General to file a second arbitral case against China for environment degradation concerning the WPS.

“Ang pangalawang kaso is a parang continuation of first case, ang for example ang degradation of environment kasi sa first case, makapal na ang desisyon na ang ginawa ng China ay mali, ang ginawa sa environment natin. Ngayon, wala tayong cause of action for damages kasi ang inexplain ko noon hindi natin alam if mananalo tayo,” he said.

(The second case is like a continuation of the first case, for example the degradation of the environment because in the first case, the decision has been made that what China did was wrong, what it did to our environment. Now, we don't have a cause of action for damages because what I explained before is that we don't know if we will win.)

Jardeleza was referring to the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands that invalidates China’s claims in areas falling within the nine-dash line, which is over 90 percent of the WPS, and affirms the traditional and legitimate fishing rights of Filipino fishermen in the area.

China persistently refuses to recognize the ruling, saying the Arbitral Tribunal did not have jurisdiction in the case and maintained ownership of the territory.

Jardeleza said the country should get a foreign expert to serve as witness that there was indeed damage in the environment.

“Walang sheriff to enforce generally in international laws but there is another principle of damages, na pag may damage ka, you might be able to enforce it in another jurisdiction provided, for example we file it in New York Financial Center,” said Jardeleza.

“Susunod sila because China has assets in New York. The court does the inherent power over assets located in New York. So kung may assets ang China doon i-levy natin,” he added. (SunStar Philippines)

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