Friday, June 29, 2012

Coast Guard gets upgrade

Manila, Philippines - The government will use P1.5 billion from its share of the national gas project in Palawan to give the Philippine Coast Guard a much needed upgrade.

Transportation and Communications Secretary Manuel Roxas II yesterday said the government would use the money from the Malampaya fund to repair and refurbish three vessels and a helicopter of the Coast Guard for search and rescue operations.

The upgrade would ensure better monitoring and protection of the country’s fishermen and all others traversing the territorial waters as well as marine resources and the environment.

Roxas said the Coast Guard will also put up detachments in various areas so that Filipino fishermen and all vessels plying the country’s waters will be monitored.

Roxas admitted the current standoff in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal with China highlighted the country’s need to modernize its capabilities to guard its coastlines.

He said the Philippines has vessels that can withstand any weather, but because of their limited size – 56 meters is the biggest in the Coast Guard fleet – the ships can only carry limited amounts of fuel, water, food and other supplies.

“They can stay out (for only) a certain amount of time,” Roxas told reporters at the inauguration yesterday of the International Container Terminal Services Inc.’s $200-million port facility in Manila.

He added the government has limited sea assets to replenish the supply of other ships in operations.

Roxas said two 56-meter Coast Guard vessels that were docked for repairs would be fixed as well as one 35-meter boat.

“Aside from that, they will be fixing the one helicopter (of the) Coast Guard. The Coast Guard only has two helicopters. The other one is defective since 2006, now that we’re going to have money we can have it fixed… so the Coast Guard capability will be better but still limited. But definitely it will improve versus where we are today,” Roxas said.

“All in, the cost of the Coast Guard modernization right now, from Malampaya funds, is about one and half billion pesos,” he added.

Roxas said the Coast Guard modernization plan would cover the entire Philippine archipelago and its 36,000-kilometer coastline.

This is aside from Panatag Shoal, Roxas said, since the country has vital sea and shipping lanes to protect aside from the fishermen and millions of other people and vessels traversing Philippine waters.

“We will have to bid it out… the money has been found and so we were able to secure the money. We will put out the bidding process. I understand because the issue here is safety of lives, this can be undertaken – and this is what we’re exploring – this can be undertaken under an emergency procedure. Because the issue here is safety of lives,” he said.

Roxas said the money would be spent this year and 2013.

He said it was important for the Coast Guard to be able to immediately launch search and rescue operations.

Roxas added the government was looking at buying a search and rescue aircraft designed to look for survivors.

“The (plan) also includes deployment of Coast Guard detachments or stations in other key strategic locations in the country and, of course, assigning personnel,” he said.

Roxas said Japan was willing to lend some funds to the Philippines so they could acquire additional vessels for the Coast Guard.

Aside from helping maintain presence in the country’s territorial waters, Roxas said it was important for the country to be able to protect its fishermen and others traversing the internal waters of the Philippines.

“So I think that’s the most important thing. We are not doing this just one area,” Roxas said.

Roxas stressed the need for the Coast Guard to upgrade its capability in guarding the country’s coastlines in the wake of the standoff between the Philippines and China over Panatag Shoal.

Roxas also noted the absence of Philippine assets in Panatag in the move to maintain the country’s sovereignty and claim in the area.

He also mentioned the ongoing search and rescue operations of the Coast Guard for the four fishermen that went missing after their fishing boat figured in a collision with the foreign vessel off Bolinao, Pangasinan on June 20.

Roxas and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said President Aquino would decide on the redeployment of ships following reports that Chinese vessels went back to the area.

Lacierda added it would be up to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to firm up details on the Philippines’ lifting of the fishing ban in Panatag.

“Weather is bad right now so that’s a consideration. So let’s wait for the decision of the President and he will instruct the Coast Guard or the BFAR to go back as he deems necessary,” he said.

Lacierda said the initial recommendation of the Department of Foreign Affairs was to pull out the local ships due to the weather.

He said the situation must be re-evaluated “with respect to our vessels whether we should go back” to the shoal at this point.

Protocol violation

On the Bolinao accident, Roxas said the government is now coordinating with Hong Kong to determine what vessel possibly sideswiped the Filipino fishing vessel that left one fisherman dead.

He said the search and rescue operations for the four others missing would continue. One of the fishermen died while three others had been recovered. They claimed a foreign ship with Hong Kong markings sideswiped their boat and left them adrift at sea.

He said the Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard are conducting a joint investigation along with some investigators from the Philippine National Police (PNP) to find out what really happened.

Roxas said the foreign vessel violated international maritime protocol that required all vessels to rescue and give aid to people adrift at sea.

Roxas said the government is trying to determine if the incident was accidental or deliberate though initial investigation showed it was an accident.

“According to survivors, they were not rammed… Their fishing boat was already in trouble even before the big vessel passed through… They were adrift… it was possible they were not noticed or maybe they were seen but purposely avoided them,” Roxas said.

Roxas said the foreign vessel worsened the condition of the fishermen while at sea.

The foreign ship was said to be the Hong Kong registered M/V Peach Mountain.

Roxas said they were coordinating with Hong Kong and would expect assistance from the ship operators once proven that it was indeed a Hong Kong-registered vessel.

In the meantime, the Coast Guard said they would have to call off the search and rescue operations for the missing fishermen because of bad weather.

“We have temporarily stopped the SAR (search and rescue) in the area because of the typhoon. There are already public storm warning signals 1 and 2 in some provinces such as Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur and La Union,” said Coast Guard Northwestern Luzon District command Captain Leopoldo Laroya.

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 on June 20. – With Evelyn Macairan - By Aurea Calica