The Mess in Tubbataha Reef

A group of student protesters and the police clashed in front of the United States Embassy yesterday. The protesters tried to throw paint at the Embassy, and out of the 20 or more so protesters, one of them was able to get through security and accomplish what the group had set out to do. Why did they want to do such a thing in the first place? They were expressing their opposition against US troops in the Philippines and because of this:

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That is the USS Guardian – a ship that has been aground in the Sulu Sea since January 17. It has been stuck there for nine 9 days now, pounded by the crashing waves and unable to get back on course. According to the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), “inaccurate navigation data [and] may have been a factor in the Guardian grounding.”

USS Guardian1

Ships do encounter navigational errors all the time, and maritime accidents are nothing new, so what’s the big deal about this one?  For starters, the USS Guardian is no ordinary ship. It is a US warship that has already done some damage to an important marine ecological system and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tubbataha Reef.

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The Tubbataha Reef is in the center the Coral Triangle, an area in the Pacific region, which includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands & Timor L’Este.  Around 70% of the world’s corals can be found here and it is an abundant source of diverse species of fish, reptiles, and other marine animals.

Experts have estimated that about 1,000 sq. meter of corals in Tubbataha Reef has been damaged due to the grounding of the USS Guardian.  Scientists say it would take about two to four decades before the damaged part can recover.  This is quite upsetting since this ecosystem is delicate and the harm done here will definitely have serious consequences and grave effects on biodiversity.

There are many questions as to why and how such a thing has happened. What was a US warship doing in a protected area without clearance in the first place? Why did the crew of the ship ignore the warnings of the Tubbataha Management Office rangers? Why was – according to the TMO park rangers – the crew in “battle position”? And how could such a ship with highly advanced technology and navigational system commit such a critical error?

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Indeed, there are a lot of things to be clarified in this disturbing issue, but before those are settled, the most important thing to be done is to lift the USS Guardian off Tubbataha first. The longer it stays there, plowing its entire body into the coral reef, the greater the chances of enlarging the scope of destruction.

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Although the US government, through the US Embassy in Manila, has expressed its apologies regarding this unfortunate situation, I am afraid that its request for forgiveness is not enough. Questions need to be answered, and the violation of laws needs to be redressed. I hope the vessel is removed soon so a thorough investigation can commence.

*all photos are courtesy of WWF-Philippines and AFP Wescom

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