Chinese fishing vessels at Iroquois Reef, September 2023 (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Posted on September 17, 2023 at 10:47 pm by

Naval Executive

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has accused Chinese fishing interests of illegally damaging coral reefs on a massive scale in the Iroquois Reef, a disputed land area in the Spratly Islands.

China maintains a large fleet of subsidized militia-operated fishing vessels in the Spratly Islands and deploys them for presence and intimidation missions. In the past, Chinese fishing operators have long been accused of illegally fishing in this area of ​​the Philippines’ EEZ, often under surveillance provided by Chinese Coast Guard cutters. Giant clams are prized for their shells in China, and Chinese fishermen will destroy coral reef structures in order to uncover and catch valuable specimens.

On a recent patrol near Iroquois Reef, the Armed Forces of the Philippines discovered what they believe is evidence of “massive” destruction of coral reefs by Chinese fishing vessels. The boats left when the Filipino forces arrived.

“When they left, we sent our divers to conduct an underwater survey and… we saw that there was no coral left. The reefs were destroyed,” Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, head of the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said in a press conference.

Philippine troops were stationed at the scene to protect the reef for an extended period of time, but eventually had to return to port. Carlos said that after they left, Chinese fishing vessels landed on the reef.

“We are the only ones who have the right to the West Philippine Sea, and it seems that someone is exercising this right without our permission,” Carlos said. “We would like to maintain (our presence) 100 percent, 365 days a year. But… our forces have to return to the port to refuel, and get some rest.”

Western Command has noticed a rise in the number of maritime militia vessels in the Spratly Islands recently, with about 30 of the supported fishing vessels operating in Philippine waters. This is down from the more than 200 vessels spotted at Union Banks in 2021, but still a cause for concern.

The good news for the Philippine government is that the destruction of resources may provide sufficient justification for a new lawsuit against China. Former Solicitor General Francis Gardeleza told The Manila Times over the weekend that the Philippines could file a lawsuit against China for actual damages in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague (PCA), based on a 2016 PCA ruling in favor of the Philippines. In that case, the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea – but was unable to rule on damages, as no compensation had been sought. According to Gardeleza, Manila could also file a lawsuit over Chinese influences on fisheries and other resources within the Philippines’ EEZ, and may be able to obtain compensation for exemplary (punitive) damages as well.

(Tags for translation)Manila

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