A Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground on one of the Philippines’ most famous coral reefs more than a week ago was removed on Friday, the coast guard said.
The 48-metre ship was hauled by a tugboat from Tubbataha, a Unesco World Heritage-listed coral reef near the western island of Palawan where its crew are facing serious charges, a spokeswoman said.
“The hull of the vessel is still okay so according to (the salvage team), it is safe to tow the vessel,” Lieutenant Greanata Jude said.
The ship will be taken to the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa where its 12 Chinese crewmen were arraigned on Friday, she said.
They were arrested for alleged poaching in the marine reserve and anger mounted after hundreds of dead pangolins or scaly anteaters – a protected species – were later discovered in their ship.
At a hearing in Puerto Princesa, the men entered a plea of not guilty to the poaching charge, while their lawyer Alex Jagmiz asked for more time to prepare his case.
“We don’t have enough interpreters,” he told reporters.
Authorities have already filed a charge of corruption against the Chinese men for allegedly trying to bribe their way to freedom.
Serious charges are also being prepared over possession of the pangolins.
Palawan environmental legal officer Adelina Villena said regardless of whether the animals came from Palawan or elsewhere, the men could still be jailed for between 12 and 20 years for transporting a threatened species through Tubbataha.
The stranding of the vessel on April 8 raised concern over the potential damage to the protected coral reef and the gathering of the rare pangolins.
Pangolins are widely hunted in parts of Asia for their meat, skin and scales – in China they are considered a delicacy and to have medicinal qualities. In the Philippines, they are found only on Palawan.
The Philippine office of the World Wide Fund for Nature condemned the poaching of the pangolins after the men were caught, saying that growing demand in China was wiping out the animal in Southeast Asia.