By Simone Orendain - VOA News
Philippine officials say 12 fishermen who were onboard a suspected Chinese ship are facing the first of several charges after their vessel got stuck on a major protected reef in the southwestern Philippines.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Management Office says the fishing vessel ran aground on an atoll close to the park rangers’ barracks.
Staff at the park took photographs of the suspected Chinese ship, which they say was equipped with fishing gear, but had no fish nor marine life on board.
Tubbataha Management spokeswoman Glenda Simon says this was enough to file the first charge of poaching, according to Philippine law.
“The mere presence of a fishing vessel inside a protected area, particularly Tubbataha, is prima facie evidence of fishing, even if they’re not caught fishing in the park,” she said.
Simon said further charges include unauthorized entry, damage to the reef and a corruption charge for an alleged bribe of $2,400 the fishermen are reported to have offered to park rangers to be set free.
The massive 97,000 hectare Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea is a UNESCO World Heritage site, prized for its marine animal biodiversity. The reefs are popular with recreational divers. The region is far from reefs and islands in the South China Sea that are contested by China.