PH military suspects China of harvesting corals in Rozul Reef

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 16) — The military on Saturday said it has observed damaged corals in Rozul Reef (also known as Iroquois Reef) in the West Philippine Sea, as it suspects China of conducting harvesting activities in the area.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command (AFP Wescom) reported that Navy personnel spotted the “suspected damage” during an initial assessment after they drove away Chinese vessels from the reef in July.

“Ang ating mga personnel doon, they did a spot inspection and they reported that what they have seen are apparently mga, kumbaga, traces of damage sa mga coral reefs natin do’n, mga suspected traces nga ng mga hinarvest,” AFP Wescom spokesperson Commander Ariel Coloma told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: Our personnel conducted a spot inspection and they reported that what they have seen are apparently traces of damage to our coral reefs, suspected traces of harvested corals.]

Coloma said marine experts would still have to confirm the damage and ascertain its extent.

On Thursday, the AFP Wescom sounded the alarm over the “concerning resurgence” of Chinese fishing vessels swarming in certain parts of the West Philippine Sea, including Rozul Reef.

The Wescom had said then that previous swarming incidents in that feature of the disputed waters have been followed by reports of massive coral harvesting.

It stressed that the presence of Chinese vessels in the area is a violation of Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction since Rozul Reef is within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

However, such activities by China are nothing new, Coloma noted.

In 2019, the Philippines protested the harvesting of endangered giant clams, locally known as taklobos, by Chinese fishermen in Scarborough Shoal. These expensive clams can be sold for thousands of dollars apiece.

Coloma said the Wescom regularly reports on such matters to the AFP headquarters, so that the information may be used for possible filing of diplomatic protests.

“Lagi naman tayong nagfa-file ng [We always file] diplomatic protests, and this forms part of those documents,” he said.

In 2016, an international tribunal at The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims over the South China Sea, which includes the West Philippine Sea.

It also recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights within its 200-nautical mile EEZ, where Beijing has built artificial islands, prohibited Filipino fishermen from fishing and interfered in oil exploration activities.

The tribunal did not rule on which country has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal but said China failed to respect traditional fishing rights of Filipino fishermen there.

Beijing, however, has refused to recognize the landmark ruling.