This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippine Coast Guard on Monday blamed Chinese maritime militia ships for destroying coral reefs in Manila-claimed waters in the South China Sea.
The coast guard’s announcement came after the Philippine military accused the Chinese militia of massive destruction, particularly in the seabed of Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal, features within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Divers had carried out “underwater surveys” of the seabed, said Commodore Jay Tarriela, the coast guard spokesman for the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for parts of the South China Sea within its jurisdiction.
“The results of these surveys showed that the marine ecosystem in the subject WPS features appeared lifeless, with minimal to no signs of life,” Tarriela said in a statement.
He said there was“visible discoloration” of the seabed that indicated “deliberate activities” meant to modify the natural topography of the terrain.
“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,” Tarriela said.
Both reefs are near the island of Palawan, the Philippines southwestern island fronting the disputed sea.
Monitoring between Aug. 9 and Sept. 11 showed an “average presence” of about 33 Chinese maritime militia ships near the two features, Tarriela said.
The swarming activities of the Chinese militia fleet and their alleged destructive fishing practices “may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment in the WPS features,” he said.
The South China Sea is home to about 177,000 square miles of biodiverse coral reefs, environmentalists said. There are an estimated 571 different species of coral and 3,794 different species of fish in its waters.
By comparison, there are roughly 600 known types of coral and 1,500 different species of fish in the Great Barrier Reef off of the East Coast of Australia.
China, which has the world’s largest fishing fleet, claims most of the South China Sea. Six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with China’s claims.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news outlet. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing did not discuss the issue on Monday, according to a transcript of her news conference.
On Saturday, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, the Philippine military’s western command chief, told reporters that coral reefs in Rozul Reef have been thoroughly harvested by Chinese militia ships.
“We noticed coral harvesting in their swarming areas. After they departed, we pinpointed the location and dispatched divers for an underwater survey. They observed that no corals remained – everything was damaged, with debris scattered,” Carlos said.
“There’s nothing left in the area,” he said, adding divers claimed the coral harvest occurred recently, although the Philippine Coast Guard did not release pictures of the undamaged seabed.
He said Philippine authorities had successfully driven away the Chinese militia in early July, but the militia returned the following month because it was nearly impossible to patrol the coastal area regularly.
“We’d like to maintain [patrol] 100%, 365 days a year. But because of the weather, limited resources … our troops have to go back to port to refuel, to take some rest,” he said.
DFA, senators speak out
On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Philippines consistently “raised the alarm over ecologically harmful activities” in the EEZ.
“We, therefore, call on everyone concerned to act responsibly and cease all activities that can damage our precious marine environment. The well-being of millions of people who depend on the South China Sea for their livelihood is at stake,” it said in a statement.
Two senators, Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada and Francis Tolentino, an ally of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., issued statements speaking out against the damage.
“Preserving the marine environment and coral reefs in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal is not only a responsibility but a moral duty that we owe to future generations,” Estrada said.
Tolentino, meanwhile, said he is crafting the Philippine Maritime Zone Law that he envisions would be the country’s legal basis for territorial disputes.
“If we file a claim, damages, it should be in a tribunal recognized by UNCLOS, United Nations,” he said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs uses of oceans and their resources.
Bobby Roldan, who represents the fishermen’s group Pamalakaya, urged Marcos to order a wider damage assessment of the area.
“There is a need to identify if the swarmed area was subjected to coral harvesting, clam hunting, or any military activities that destroyed its vast coral reefs,” Roldan said.
“We urge the Marcos administration to take this matter urgently by tapping marine scientists and other experts to extensively assess the damage and its possible long-term implications to the local fishery production.