By Jaime Laude
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – A maritime investigation into the ramming of a Filipino fishing boat off the coast of Bolinao, Pangasinan would involve at least 90 foreign vessels, the Philippine Navy said yesterday.
Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said that aside from MV Peach Mountain, Philippine Coast Watch monitoring showed there were at least 90 vessels that sailed through the impact area before, during and after the time of the incident last Wednesday.
“We are doing a process of elimination. That area (where the ramming occurred) is a nautical highway. There are many ships sailing through that area,” Pama told a forum with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at Camp Aguinaldo.
Based on online records, MV Peach Mountain is a Hong Kong-registered bulk carrier and among the dozens of bulk carriers operated by Melbourne, Australia-based Grandview Cargo shipping company.
Pama said part of the ongoing investigation is to coordinate with international maritime organizations to try to identify the vessel involved in the sea mishap that left a Filipino fisherman dead and four others missing.
The Philippine Coast Watch station in Zambales monitoredthe MV Peach Mountain at about 8:45 a.m. going north at a speed of 10.1 knots off the coast of San Narciso town in Zambales, around 178 nautical miles southwest of the mishap site in Bolinao.
“If we compute on basis of ship location at 9 a.m. she cannot be in that particular area. At 10.1 knots (while in Zambales area) it will take MV Peach Mountain about 13 hours to be in the general location where the mishap occurred,” Pama explained.
An unidentified foreign vessel rammed the listing Filipino fishing boat AXL John while its eight-man crew was trying to secure it to an artificial bamboo fish sanctuary off the coast of Bolinao at about 1 p.m. on June 20.
Pama, however, explained other factors like favorable winds and sea current could have increased or decreased the speed of Peach Mountain.
“We are checking with other maritime organizations about other ships that might have been transiting that area,” Pama said.
He added the Navy is also not discounting the possibility that the vessel that rammed the fishermen’s boat was heading south and not north as the surviving fishermen claimed.
The fishermen could have already been disoriented when the sea mishap occurred and the vessel that rammed their fishing boat could have been southbound, according to Pama.
“We are not saying what ship or what nationality was responsible for the incident that happened,” Pama said, referring to published reports that a Chinese ship was involved in the ramming of the Filipino fishing boat.
Gazmin, for his part, said the sea mishap has brought a lot of confusion, pointing out that the ill-fated fishing boat could have drifted into the high seas, contrary to an earlier report that it was safely secured to an artificial bamboo fish sanctuary (payaw).
“Because of bad weather, the rope tying the fishing boat to the payaw might have snapped, which at that time was almost submerged,” Gazmin said.
The surviving boat captain, whom Gazmin identified as Emedio Balmores, also told Navy investigators that it was when their fishing boat got separated from the payaw that an unidentified vessel with a Hong Kong insignia passed but did not ram them.
The vessel, Gazmin pointed out, did not bother to stop to rescue the drifting fishermen.
Malacañang also assailed the fact that the fishermen were left to drown after their boat was rammed.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said an investigation would continue to determine whether the incident was an accident or deliberate.
“So I cannot speculate as to whether it was accidental, whether it was intentional. We do not wish to make any statement that (is) not exact. So we’ll just wait for the investigation to be finished,” he said.
Lacierda, however, conceded the aggravating factor was that the fishermen were left to drown.
“Certainly, it did not help that they were abandoned,” he said.
‘Lost in translation’
Lacierda also said there was no need to seek an explanation from National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) executive director Benito Ramos as to why he indicated early on that the vessel that rammed the local fishing boat could be Chinese.
He said Gazmin had informed Malacañang that based on initial investigation, “there was a mark of Hong Kong” on the vessel and that it was not yet confirmed if it was the Hong Kong registered Peach Mountain.
“The Philippine Navy conducted an assessment, and also based on the route and the speed by which the vessel was plying that route, it appears it is not – this is from Secretary Voltz Gazmin – it is not Peach Mountain that rammed the vessel. However, it is another Hong Kong-registered vessel and we’re still looking at it and there’s a continuing investigation as to what particular vessel hit the fishermen,” Lacierda said.
Sources, however, said that based on interviews with the fishermen, their anchor gave in after they had engine failure at sea and were then hit by the foreign vessel.
The sources added it would have to be determined if the foreign vessel saw the fishermen after they were “accidentally” hit or if they were indeed deliberately run over in the first place.
“The primary report was given to us Sunday… We’ve asked Secretary Gazmin and right now he’s in the process of investigating,” Lacierda said.
He said the statements given by the fishermen were being used in the investigation.
“So maybe because of the situation where the fishermen have been at sea for some time, the information given to them was relayed to the coast watch of Bolinao and so perhaps there was something lost in translation.
“Maybe perhaps it was because it was mentioned they saw the words ‘Hong Kong’ and they immediately assumed it was Chinese. We’d like to clarify that it’s still being investigated and so we are now making sure that we would be able, hopefully, able to identify the proper vessel,” Lacierda said.
He said Gazmin issued the necessary instructions to NDRRMC not to make any premature accusations.
Asked how justice could be obtained for the fishermen if indeed a foreign vessel victimized them, Lacierda said they are consulting legal experts on its implications.
“We are asking our legal experts on that first so I cannot give you any further information.
But certainly we are looking into the effect… They are plying internal waters by the way, these are municipal waters. So definitely… we will have a contact person of that registered vessel, assuming we are able to identify the proper vessel that hit the fishermen. So we’re now asking our legal experts as to the process,” he said.
Lacierda said it was too early to make any pronouncement on whether arrests could be made and charges could be filed against those responsible.
“It’s too early to say. I will still have to ask our legal experts as to the process. This is with respect to admiralty so we would have to ask our marine experts, legal experts, to give us a briefing on that. As soon as we get the process, we’ll let you know,” he said.
Lacierda added President Aquino wanted to see the fishermen but the plans were not immediately carried out.
“The DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) already met with them and initial assessment and assistance has been provided… not only by the national government but also by the local government,” he said.
Lacierda stressed the vessel involved was being identified and that necessary coordination was being done.
He said there were several matters to verify first before authorities could talk about violating Philippine laws in traversing the country’s territorial waters by foreign vessels.
“Certainly we expect them (foreign operator) to cooperate with us, with Philippine authorities. We, certainly, would want them to cooperate with us. They were plying internal waters and, therefore, there should be some… contact person here in the Philippines. So that’s one thing that we’re looking at,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda said he could not tell if cooperating with authorities could be a mitigating circumstance.
“We don’t know yet if it was intentional; whether it was intentional or accidental, that’s something that we’ll have to verify… If (there) was a penalty found in the Revised Penal Code, leaving them would have been an aggravating circumstance and admission of that particular crime would have been a mitigating circumstance. So I really don’t know what crime has been committed right now. We will leave that to the experts. But we would expect those responsible to cooperate,” he said.
Lacierda also stressed authorities are still searching for the four missing fishermen.
“So let’s pray that they are (safe)… we can still find them,” he said.
The Philippine Coast Guard launched an aerial search for the four missing fishermen identified as Fred Celino, Arnold Garcia, Domy de los Santos, and Amante Resonable.
The aerial search will scour the coastal areas in the provinces of Pangasinan, La Union, Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte.
At the same time, Lacierda defended government agencies in their effort to investigate the incident, even if there seemed to be some conflicting reports on the matter.
“The Philippine Navy was tasked to investigate the particular ship and (determine) whether it was Peach Mountain. With a great degree of certainty, Philippine Navy was able to discount Peach Mountain. So, according to Secretary Gazmin, we’re looking at other vessels,” he said.
Lacierda noted the surviving fishermen identified the vessel with Hong Kong markings.
“Because the fishermen identified the marking Hong Kong there, we’re limiting ourselves to Hong Kong-registered vessels. But as to how many, we’re still looking at it… The only difference there is the fact that it’s an international-registered vessel and so there would be certain laws that will apply there, since the incident happened in our waters. But there are parameters, there are protocols here which I am not familiar with, so I will have to ask the responsible officials,” he said.
The incident also prompted a lawmaker to propose making the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) an international marine reserve or “a patrimony of the entire mankind.”
Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo said this move could dissipate the rising tension in the area and bring to the negotiating table the claimant nations of China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
“We have to seek the middle ground without necessarily antagonizing our friends, including China,” Castelo said.
“This is a proposal that could be raised as the Philippines and China hold bilateral talks to resolve the issue. We have to take the moral high ground to encourage support from the family of nations,” he said. – Aurea Calica, Jun Elias, Paolo Romero