MANILA - Twelve Chinese fishermen were handed long prison terms on Tuesday 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 (157-foot) boat hit and badly damaged it.
Boat captain Liu Chiangjie and his crew had pleaded not guilty, telling the court in the western city of Puerto Princesa that they had merely got lost but regional trial court 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 told AFP.
The 12 told the court they would appeal against the ruling.
All were found guilty of violating the anti-poaching provisions of a 2009 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.
Dead pangolins in boat
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.
Pangolins are widely hunted in parts of Asia, including Palawan, for their meat, skin and scales.
In China they are considered a delicacy and to have medicinal qualities.
The boat captain had earlier testified during the trial that the boat's global positioning system navigational equipment had broken down on their way home from Indonesia, and as a result they did not know where they were.