200 sea turtles found on board Chinese fishing boat12/08/2007 00:00:00 September 2007. A Chinese poaching vessel has been apprehended by units of the Philippine Navy, Marines and Coast Guard in the Sulu Archipelago.
A routine inspection by the boarding crew revealed rows of sea turtles – dead, gutted and left to dry on deck. The official count was 50 dried, 58 freshly-gutted and 18 still-living turtles, mostly green sea turtles – classified internationally as endangered by the IUCN and one of the flagship species that WWF-Philippines. 19 Chinese fishermen were arrested onboard the craft.
It is believed that the crew had been trying to ditch the carcasses to hide the evidence; the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau’s (PAWB) believe that they probably had more than 200 adult turtles and over 10,000 eggs. A pair of live pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus), classified by the IUCN as vulnerable, were also found in the vessel’s holding tanks. WWF lauds the efforts of all those who brought these pirates a step closer to justice.
Nine surviving turtles, seven male and two female, were released shortly after the boat was detained.
The craft, along with its 19 crewmen, are currently detained in Bongao port.
The Chinese crew have now been charged with violating the Philippine Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act – penalties for which can incur a fine of up to one million pesos, coupled with a six-year jail term. Amidst fears that justice might be elusive, WWF, the global conservation organization, is acting as a watchdog to ensure that these charges push through – to bring the accused to justice.
The Chinese Connection
WWF Tawi-Tawi Project Manager Filemon Romero said, ‘This is by no means the first time that foreign nationals encroached upon Philippine waters to plunder our nation’s rich but dwindling marine resources.’
Last December 2006, the M/V Hoi Wan, another Chinese fishing vessel, was caught poaching off Tubbataha Reef. Amongst its catch were 359 CITES-protected napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). The case remains unresolved. A Chinese fishing boat was arrested in Indonesia in May 2007 with 360 turtles on board.
Another incident, the M/V Kwok Wai Ming case, took place two months previously. 24 Chinese blast fishermen were caught poaching off Mangsee Island in Balabac, Palawan. Palawan’s prosecutor’s office initially dropped the case, before reversing their decision early this month. ‘This is a great sign. While we are not lacking environmental laws, enforcement and the political will to see these cases through leads much to be desired. WWF is hopeful that the accused finally get what’s due for them,’ adds Romero.
In the last nine years more than 900 foreigners have been arrested and charged for poaching in the waters of Palawan alone. More than 660 of these poachers hailed from China. Only one case, the January 2004 arrest of 17 Sino-poachers caught with 54 dead turtles, has ever led to a conviction.
But even they were pardoned after paying a light fine, in order not to strain the relations between the Philippines and China. WWF hopes that the Philippine government will finally have the resolve to dispense justice against foreign poachers who disregard both local and international laws.
Just last January, WWF’s Tawi-Tawi team celebrated the year of the turtle by releasing six captive green sea turtles in Sitangkai. Says Romero, ‘We worked so hard to save a half-dozen and these pirates kill them by the hundreds. It’s just heartbreaking. If in our enforcement campaigns we have been strict with the poor local people, we should be unrelenting to foreigners who commit these fisheries and environmental crimes by destroying our national posterity such as our marine biodiversity.’