Who’s really to blame?

July 06, 2019
Filipino fishermen

THE Chinese vessel in the West Philippine Sea incident on June 9 failed to initiate measures to prevent the risk of collision and eventual sinking of an anchored Philippine fishing boat off Recto Bank (Reed Bank), the official joint investigation report of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) concluded.

A copy of the joint PCG-Marina investigation report was sent to Malacañang on June 20.

The report however  failed to determine whether the ramming was intentional or not, even as it also identified several shortcomings of the Filipino fishermen.

Based on Rule 18 of the Collision Regulations or Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (Colreg), power-driven vessel underway shall keep out of the way of vessels not under command and vessels restricted in her ability to maneuver, the report explained.

The report also underscored the failure of the Chinese vessel to extend assistance to the 22 Filipino fishermen who were abandoned in open sea.

The Chinese vessel “failed to take appropriate action to avoid the risk of collision and to render assistance to a vessel in distress,” one of the conclusions of the report read.

“By maneuvering back and stopping approximately 50 meters away from Fbca Gem-ver with her fishing lights open, the other vessel can be considered to have direct knowledge of the distress situation,” it said.

By failing to extend assistance, the Chinese vessel failed to comply with the regulations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which oblige masters of ships to provide assistance to distressed persons at sea, the report stated.

The report categorized the incident as a “very serious marine casualty.”

“In accordance with the definition provided in the Code of the International Standards and Recommended Practices for Safety Investigation into a Marine Casualty or Marine Incident and the post structural assessment, the Joint Marina-PCG Marina Safety Investigating Team concluded that the event is very serious marine casualty due to the total loss of the ship,” the report stated.

President Rodrigo Duterte previously dismissed the June 9 event as a “little maritime accident” and the result of “miscommunication,” triggering a backlash against his handling of the incident.

The report only referred to the Chinese boat as “unidentified Chinese fishing vessel” and not Yuemaobinyu 42212 as identified by the Chinese Embassy in Manila. It did not conclude if it was indeed a Chinese fishing vessel or a maritime militia.

“Based on the description and drawing of the boat captain, as corroborated by the rest of the survivors, in identifying the other fishing vessel based on their familiarity on the structure and shape, it can be considered that the hit FBca Gem-ver is similar to the Chinese fishing vessels seen fishing in the area,” it said.

But the Philippine fishing boat also had the following shortcomings, according to the report:

• Failure to maintain proper look-out

• Employing unlicensed chief engine officer

• Carrying persons onboard in excess of the authorized capacity

• Expired BFAR commercial fishing vessel / gear license

• Expired BFAR certificate of clearance

Richard Blaza, the Philippine boat’s cook and the one who first saw the approaching Chinese vessel, was technically not a look-out but was only awake to perform his duties as a cook.

“By not having or maintaining a designated look-out at the time they are anchored, no one could signal an alarm of any approaching danger,” the report read.

Blaza only “hastily awakened all the crews” when the Chinese vessel was about to hit their boat.

“According to all the crew, they were not able to jump off in the water because the said fishing vessel had already hit the aft portion of their Fbca,” it said.

The report also contained these findings:

• The incident transpired 140 nautical miles northwest of Piedras Point, Palawan or within the exclusive economic zone

• The weather was fair with starry skies on a first quarter moon and the visibility was slightly clear and the sea state was calm during the incident

• Based on the statements of the boat captain and engineer, they displayed their anchor lights and white flashing light in compliance to Colreg

• The investigators cannot determine, however, if they are in compliance with the “visibility of lights” relative to the luminous intensity / technical requirement of exhibited lights

The joint investigation was carried out by fact-finding teams of PCG and Marina to “make appropriate safety recommendations and/or adopt measures to prevent the occurrence of similar marine casualty and incident” and “not to seek to apportion or determine liability.”

The  PCG and Marina recommended to formulate a policy defining the area of operation and safety standards for fishing vessels and to keep on reminding fishing vessels owners/operators and crew on regulations at sea.

It also called for improvements in the safety of fishing vessels and crew by requiring provisions for navigation and communication equipment, voyage data recorder, training and qualification for crew of fishing vessels.

It also suggested to pursue cooperation with the Department of Science and Technology to develop home-grown technology to make navigational equipment such as automatic identification system and voyage data recorder affordable for fishing vessels.

The probe findings also requested that the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration conduct their own investigation of the incident.