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SBMA is Driving Ships Out of Subic Bay for Typhoon Ompong. Is That OK?

Subic Bay should be a safe harbor for anyone who needs it, according to the law.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons
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As we all batten down the hatches in anticipation of Typhoon Ompong, it seems that the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority has decided on a peculiar way of preparing for the storm to come. In a memo issued September 12 by SBMA General Manager Jerome M. Martinez, the port authority "respectfully advises" all vessels to "relocate and avoid the track of the typhoon." Furthermore, they have also announced that "incoming vessels scheduled to arrive in the port of Subic Bay will not be allowed to enter."

Read the whole memo here, as posted by Apa Ongpin on Facebook:

The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority is 'respectfully advising' all ships to vacate Subic Bay due to the coming storm....

Posted by Apa Ongpin on Wednesday, September 12, 2018

When reached for comment, a representative of the SBMA did confirm the authenticity of this memo, explaining that they want to avoid collisions among the ships within the harbor.

Ongpin, who himself operates and maintains several boats in Subic Bay, notes that the waters there can be rough, even during non-storm conditions—which is likely the concern of SBMA's memo. Prior to receiving this memo, Ongpin had decided to keep his boat in Subic, saying the risks and costs of bringing it to Puerto Galera for the duration of the storm were not warranted, given the forecast.

But as Ongpin also points out, there are legal provisions for granting innocent passage to ships, especially in dire circumstances like a storm. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS for short, states that "Ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea."

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In a succeeding article, the UNCLOS includes such dire circumstances under its definition of "passage": "Passage shall be continuous and expeditious. However, passage includes stopping and anchoring, but only in so far as the same are incidental to ordinary navigation or are rendered necessary by force majeure or distress or for the purpose of rendering assistance to persons, ships or aircraft in danger or distress."

Perhaps the SBMA has the right intention of minimizing damage in preparation for the storm, it appears that they are going about it in a way that isn't only counterintuitive, but possibly illegal. Ongpin had this to say about the matter:

This is an issue of poor management and worse communication. I get that they are concerned about safety, as they should be. But the way they worded their memo sounds like, 'Get out, and stay out, nobody try to come in here.' Instead of putting public service first, it looks like what they’re trying to do is wash their hands of all liability.

The worst part, and the one that drove me to write the post, is the last line, where they said they will not allow vessels entry to the port during the storm. That does not just go against the UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is contrary to any fundamental notion of human decency. What kind of people would deny safe harbor to a ship in distress? How the devil do they see this as public service?

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Giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is not what they meant. Unfortunately, it is exactly what they said, which implies that the persons who wrote and signed this memo lack fundamental communication and management skills. At the very least, they owe the public an apology for this travesty. It’s like the captain of a sinking ship taking the only lifeboat, throwing everyone else out of it, and attacking anyone who tries to climb on board.

Ongpin goes on to suggest that the SBMA should take back the memo, apologize, and reissue it with "proper facts instead of empty conjectures, and with actual timelines and commitments."

Let's hope for the sake of those at sea that this can all be sorted out.

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