Twelve Chinese fishermen were given long prison terms yesterday for illegal fishing in the Philippines after their ship ran aground on a World Heritage-listed coral reef, a court official said.
The 12 were arrested at the Tubbataha Reef, a marine sanctuary in the western Philippines famed as a pristine dive spot, in April last year after their 48-metre boat hit and badly damaged it.
"The court imposed the maximum punishment of 12 years in prison for the boat captain," Hazel Alaska, clerk of the court that heard the case in the western city of Puerto Princesa, said. The written verdict identified the boat captain as Liu Chiangjie.
His 11 crew members were given prison terms of between six and 10 years after they were also found guilty of violating the anti-poaching provisions of a 2009 law that gave the Tubbataha Reef protected status, according to Alaska.
Regional trial court judge Ambrosio de Luna also fined the fishermen US$100,000 each, while their boat was forfeited, Alaska said.
They were the first foreigners to be found guilty of violating the law, according to Herminia Caabay, legal officer for a council that helps the western province of Palawan protect its natural resources.
The fishermen were still on trial for possession of protected species within the park, Alaska said, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The Philippine coastguard had said hundreds of dead and frozen pangolins were seized from the Chinese fishing boat.
Pangolins are widely hunted in parts of Asia, including Palawan, for their meat, skin and scales.
They are considered a delicacy in China and to have medicinal qualities.
The 12, who pleaded not guilty to all charges, are among dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen who are detained in Palawan for illegal fishing.
Among the others are nine Chinese fishermen who were arrested on May 6 off Half Moon Shoal, a South China Sea outcrop claimed by both China and the Philippines. However the 97,000-hectare Tubbataha Reef, which was listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1993, is in a part of the Sulu Sea claimed only by the Philippines.
It requires long sailing in Philippine waters to reach.
The Chinese boat ran aground less than three months after a US minesweeper ploughed into the reef while transiting through the area.
The US Navy had to cut up the vessel in a salvage operation that took 10 weeks.
The Philippines fined the United States 58 million pesos (HK$10.27 million) for damaging the reef, but laid no criminal charges against the crew.