The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) discovered an extensive damage in the corals surrounding Rozul (Iroquios) Reef in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and it suspected that the swarming of Chinese vessels in the area had something to do with it.
Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, commander of the Palawan-based Western Command (WesCom) which supervises the military operations in WPS, said they are now doubling their efforts on maritime surveillance after they detected a resurgence of Chinese vessels in Rozul Reef.
Rozul Reef, located at the southern end of Recto (Reed) Bank in the northeastern portion of Kalayaan Island Group (Spratly Islands) in Palawan, is known as a haven for different species of fish and other marine life thanks to the natural coral reef growing around it which serves as their shelter.
But now, the corals are gone, according to Carlos.
The military commander said the WesCom noticed a resurgence of Chinese vessels in Rozul Reef in August, just a month after they drove away around 50 Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels in the area.
“There was a considerable amount of time that there was no swarming in the area because of our presence there,” Carlos said in a news forum in Quezon City on Saturday, Sept. 16.
“When they left, we send out our divers to do an underwater survey and we saw that the corals are gone. There’s nothing left, they are destroyed and only debris were there,” he added.
Carlos said the WesCom suspects “massive illegal harvesting of coral” in the area, citing a report provided by Philippine Navy divers when they conducted underwater surveys.
Although the WesCom was not definitively asserting that the Chinese vessels are harvesting corals, Carlos said there were “indications” that “strongly suggest” such activities may be occurring.
Carlos emphasized that this raises concerns about violations of the country’s sovereign rights in the WPS.
He said that only the Philippines has the rightful claim to the resources within its exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, citing the arbitral ruling in 2016 which rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea on the basis of its nine-dash line.
“That’s why it’s alarming because as far as the Western Command is concerned, it is our duty to protect that sovereign rights for the Filipinos, who are the ones that should be benefitting from the resources in our exclusive economic zone,” Carlos said.
Now, Carlos said the WesCom targets to increase their presence in Rozul Reef to protect the area and its resources. This, however, is not easy to do due to adverse weather conditions and resource limitations.
“We’d like to maintain [presence] 100 percent, 365 days a year. But because of the weather, limited resources, our troops have to go back to port to refuel, to take some rest,” he said.
One of the strategies being considered by Carlos to protect the country’s interests in the WPS is to hold coordinated patrols with allied countries.
“We’re doubling our effort on that. We’re going to address that issue by increasing our presence there. We should be constant, have strong presence there. Sama-sama na (We should join forces with others),” he said.