US Navy fined for 'illegal entry' at Philippines coral reef

US Navy fined for 'illegal entry' at Philippines coral reef
The Philippines government has fined the US Navy for unlawfully entering and damaging a World-Heritage listed coral reef aboard the USS Guardian, even after receiving radio warnings by park rangers to avoid the reef.

Penalties of unauthorized entry to the Tubbataha Reef are severe, and include a maximum penalty of one-year imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pesos (about $7,300). The Philippine government has decided to fine the US Navy, but will not be sending anyone to prison, according to information obtained by the Agence France-Presse.

Ever since the USS Guardian damaged the protected reef on Jan. 17, Philippines have expressed growing anger over the perceived carelessness of the US. A government-led board that manages the reef took several days to assess the destruction to its reef and resources and decide on the penalty.

Jose Lorenzo Tan, a member of the board, refused to discuss the amount of the fine the US Navy will be forced to pay, but confirmed that there would be no jail time.

Angelique Songco, head of the Philippines government’s Protected Area Management Board, told the Huffington Post that the government typically imposes fines of about $300 per square meter of damaged coral. The World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines estimates that at least 10 meters (11 yards) of the 68-meter (74-yard) reef have been damaged.

On Jan. 17, the USS Guardian, an American minesweeper, went aground the coral reef, even after receiving radio complaints from park rangers assigned to warn oncoming ships of the World Heritage-listed site’s location. After park rangers contacted the USS Guardian, the ship captain told them to direct their complaints to the US embassy instead. The US Navy then continued along their route, going aground against the Tubbataha Reef and getting stuck.

The US Navy released a statement after the incident, blaming the slip-up on bad weather, wind and waves, and promising that some of its personnel will remain aboard the USS Guardian to help free the ship from the coral it was stuck on and to minimize the environmental damage.

The US has long planned to increase its military presence in the Philippines in order to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Last month, the Obama administration began to significantly increase its number of troops, aircraft and ships that rotate through the island nation. The US has also provided the country with financial assistance and signed a five-year joint US-Philippine military exercise plan. The US Navy also visits the Philippine ports to refuel its ship and allow its forces to rest and relax. But while the administration has tried to keep up good relations with the Philippines and gain a strong presence in the region, its mistake on the World Heritage-listed coral reef upset many locals and may cause a setback.

The USS Guardian is now grounded on the south atoll of the Tubbatha Reef. The Phillipine Coast Guard will attempt to remove the ship from its dangerously close location to the protected reef and will continue to assess the environmental damage.