Customs officers show to photographers rare black corals as they are presented to media in Manila on Monday. AP
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—The owners of the company reportedly behind the seized illegal shipment of corals and other marine species worth about P35 have made themselves scarce.
A worker for Olivia Li of Li and Lim Trading on Magay Road here told the Inquirer that she and her husband left for Manila last week.
The worker, who refused to give his name, said they had no idea what their employers were doing in Manila or when they were coming back.
Ahadulla Sajili, director of the Western Mindanao office of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, (BFAR), said they have been trying to locate Li, “but no one is providing us information of her whereabouts or that of her husband.”
A source who asked not to be named told the Inquirer that the Lis may have been trying to get out of the country if they have not done so yet.
Elmer Apolinario, deputy city administrator, said he got information that the Lis were actually Taiwanese.
Asis Perez, national director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said charges for violation of the Fisheries Code were filed against Li and several others on Friday. He said Li and her associates could also face charges of smuggling.
On Friday, Western Mindanao police director Chief Superintendent Elpidio de Asis ordered the city police to immediately secure Li’s warehouse and buying station here.
“We are under instruction to secure and prevent any possible entry or exit of any marine products,” said Senior Supt. Edwin De Ocampo, acting city police chief.
He said policemen were deployed to guard Yacom Bldg. in Barangay San Roque and Li’s office on Magay Road.
Demetrio Escoto, BFAR legal officer, said that aside from Li, several other persons have been charged for violating the fisheries laws.
They included Exequiel D. Navarro, listed in the shipment’s manifest and bill of lading as the consignee of the seized marine items; Kim L. Atillano, owner of the Zamboanga-based JKA Transport System, the alleged cargo forwarder; and an Ireneo Penuliar.
De Ocampo said despite the cases filed against those allegedly behind the illegal trade in marine species, there had been no instruction for them to search or seize anything from either Li’s warehouse or office.
Apolinario said Li and Lim Trading has a permit to operate and is engaged in “exporting seashells.”
Meanwhile, another source who was trying to help the Inquirer get as much information on Li and Lim Trading, said Friday he had warned against asking too much about the smuggling activities.
The source said that among those who warned him were from the Chinese-Filipino community here.
“I’ve been asking around about this (company) but everybody was mum and all of them told me to go slow as it could be dangerous, that a big syndicate could be behind this (smuggling),” the source said.
The existence of a syndicate in the illicit marine trade was earlier brought to the Inquirer’s attention by Rosella Contreras of the BFAR’s Fish Inspection and Quarantine Services here.
Contreras said the smuggling of corals and other marine species had been going on since 2008 without any meaningful seizures or arrests made.
“Smuggling is a non-stop activity at the Zamboanga City Port. Syndicates abound,” she said.
Contreras said that as much as the BFAR wanted to inspect cargoes to ensure they did not include protected marine species, they could barely move inside the port.
“If we receive positive reports, we immediately act on them. But sometimes, armed men would confront us. We could only take notes and make reports,” she said, without saying who the armed men were.
Contreras said while there had been seizures in the past, no one actually went to jail for smuggling protected marine species.
“There were several apprehensions but they could easily get away after paying certain dues,” she said.
During a meeting with local and other government officials, Asis said he was informed that the stuffed turtles and other species confiscated in Manila last week had come from waters around Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
“These were being collected by deep sea diving and the use of air compressors and were mostly done by ordinary fishermen, who were not so aware of the laws,” he said.
Sajili said buyers of marine species go around these provinces and tell fishermen what types of corals they need.
The collected marine items are then shipped to the buyers through small wharfs and ports, Perez said.
Mayor Celso Lobregat said the city has about 28 mini-ports and wharves and most are not licensed.