Twelve Chinese fishermen were handed long prison terms on Tuesday for illegal fishing in the Philippines after their ship ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef.
The 12 were arrested in April last year after their boat hit and badly damaged the reef.
Boat captain Liu Chiangjie and his crew had pleaded not guilty, telling the Puerto Princesa regional trial court that they had merely got lost. However, judge Ambrosio de Luna rejected the explanation as “highly incredible and unbelievable”.
The court imposed the maximum punishment of 12 years for the boat captain and prison terms of between six and 10 years for the rest of the crew, clerk of court Hazel Alaska said.
The 12 told the court they would appeal against the ruling.
All were found guilty of violating the anti-poaching law that gave the Tubbataha Reef protected status, according to Alaska.
The fishermen were also fined $100,000 each, while their boat was forfeited, Alaska added.
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 coast guard had said hundreds of dead and frozen pangolins were seized from the Chinese fishing boat.
The 12 are among dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen who are detained in Palawan for illegal fishing.
Although the Tubbataha Reef is not claimed by China, the jailing of the 12 Chinese fishermen will likely add more strain to the already tense ties between Manila and Beijing.
“The verdict was based on applicable [Philippine] laws. And the place where these Chinese fishermen were apprehended is part of the Philippines’ internal waters where it has exclusive sovereignty,” Charles Jose, Foreign Affairs spokesman, said.