The pair of Andrada-class gunboats from Joint Task Force Malampaya (JTFM) expected nothing more than a quiet and uneventful sweep through Linapacan, Northern Palawan. By day’s end, they would have seized one of the largest illegal wildlife hauls of the year.
At 11:00 PM, Navy gunboat PG-380 chanced upon a Vietnamese fishing vessel, which suddenly attempted to escape. Propelled by tandem 2800 horsepower engines, the gunboat overtook the smaller craft, identified as Q.ng 91234-TS, five nautical miles east of Cabaluan Isle.
An attempt to scuttle the vessel was quickly thwarted by the boarding team when the 13-man Vietnamese crew sabotaged the engine cooling system – unplugging the drain to flood much of the craft until a submersible pump could be brought in.
Found drowned in the vessel’s cargo hold were 101 Hawksbill Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata sub. bissa). Though resting sea turtles can remain submerged for up to two hours, stressed individuals must resurface every few minutes.
Growing to a metre in length and weighing as much as 80 kilograms, huge numbers of Hawksbill Turtles once plied the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic regions. Distinguished from other sea turtles by a hooked beak and heavily-serrated carapace, the Hawksbill has for millennia been hunted for food and tortoiseshell – a material used as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman eras to fashion jewellery, combs and brushes.
It is now classified by the IUCN as critically-endangered – the highest risk rating for a living animal (save for being completely extinct in the wild). Under Philippine and international law, it is illegal to capture and kill sea turtles and to trade in turtle by-products.
Foreign Poacher’s Paradise
The incident echoes the previous September’s Tawi-Tawi poaching case, where 126 endangered Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 10,000 turtle eggs were found aboard Chinese fishing vessel 01087 in Sulu. Considering that the crew was scuttling much of the carcasses to hide the evidence, the final tally for the incident was officially pegged at over 200 adult turtles. The case remains unresolved.
Says WWF Project Manager RJ de la Calzada, “Again and again, foreign nationals have encroached upon Philippine waters to plunder our nation’s dwindling marine resources. It disheartens us to find the animals we work so hard to conserve slaughtered on a wholesale basis.”
Last 6 July four Vietnamese aboard vessel Q.ng 95986 were arrested for alleged poaching off Guntao Isle, El Nido. Four other fishing boats, believed to be Vietnamese, escaped.
On 13 April, a 23-man Vietnamese poaching detail aboard the Quang Mei was arrested in Balabac, Southern Palawan. Retrieved from the craft were assorted fish and a sea turtle. With heavy rains and under the veil of darkness on 14 April, 21 made an escape, leaving behind skipper Dang The and another crewman to face charges in Puerto Princesa.
In December of 2006, the M/V Hoi Wan, a Chinese fishing vessel, was caught poaching off the Tubbataha Reefs in Palawan. Amongst its catch were 359 CITES-protected Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). The case is unresolved.
In the last decade over a thousand foreigners have been arrested and charged for poaching in the waters of Palawan alone. Over 660 poachers were Chinese.
Only one case, the January 2004 arrest of 17 Chinese poachers caught with 54 dead sea turtles, has ever led to a conviction – but even they were pardoned after paying a light fine.
Amidst fears that justice might again be elusive, WWF, the global conservation organization, is acting as a watchdog to ensure that these charges push through, once and for all.
Vessel Q.ng 91234-TS is now moored in El Nido: WWF, DENR, JTFM-AFP, PNP and the local government of El Nido are now facilitating post-apprehension procedures for the 13 Vietnamese crewmen. The poachers will be charged with violating the Philippine Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act (RA9147) – penalties for which can incur a fine of up to one million pesos, coupled with a six-year jail term. They may also be charged with illegal incursion and breaking the Fisheries Code of 1998 (RA8550).
Says WWF President Dave Valdes, “WWF condemns such blatant poaching of internationally-protected marine life and hopes that the Philippine government will finally have the resolve to dispense due justice against foreign poachers who disregard both local and international laws.”
As for the 101 dead Hawksbill Turtles, a decent burial and newly-hardened resolve would be the most fitting of tributes.
The hawksbill sea turtle is a small to medium sea turtle with a very attractively colored shell of thick overlapping scales. This shell is the source of “tortoise shell.” Hawksbill turtles have a distinct, hawk-like beak. Adults range in size from 0.8-1.0 meters (30-36 inches) shell length and weigh 45-90 kilograms (100-200 pounds). The hawksbill turtle is a shy tropical reef dwelling species that feeds primarily on sponges. Commercial exploitation is the major cause of the continued decline of the hawksbill sea turtle. There is a continuing demand for the hawksbill’s shell as well as other products including leather, oil, perfume, and cosmetics. The hawksbill shell commands high prices (currently $225/kilogram), a major factor preventing effective protection.
For more information, please contact:
RJ dela Calzada
El Nido Project Manager, WWF-Philippines
Gregg Yan Information, Education & Communications Officer, WWF-Philippines