Filipino fishermen back from Panatag Shoal with big catch
INFANTA, Pangasinan—After being angrily chased away by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel from the Scarborough Shoal days earlier, fisherman Gil Bauya and his crew of eight were sailing home when they passed by a fishing boat anchored off the rich fishing ground.
Emboldened, he immediately deployed four small vessels to different fishing areas near the shoal and were surprised that Chinese vessels ignored them.
The next three days were a bonanza. Bauya and his crew filled their cargo hold with as much catch as they could, becoming the first fishermen from Pangasinan allowed back into the shoal since March, when other fishermen from his village tried to enter but were driven away.
Bauya, skipper of Ruvina 3, first sailed to the area on Oct. 23, but were met by a rubber boat with five fully armed Chinese Coast Guard personnel who intimidated them and shouted “Go, go, go!”
“We had no choice but to leave,” Bauya, 58, said, adding that he sailed some 10 nautical miles away from the shoal and fished at the payao (artificial reefs) for two nights.
Two days later, they were returning to shore when they passed by the shoal and spotted a fishing boat from Zambales province anchored in the area. Chinese vessels were also seen in the shoal up until the time the fishermen left, but they seemed not to mind.
More vessels arrive
One of the Chinese vessels even passed near Ruvina 3 but ignored them, Bauya said. “Maybe, they have been told that we can already fish here,” he said.
Three more fishing boats from Zambales arrived on the same day, and they too were also ignored by the Chinese Coast Guard ships.
Ludivina Arcalas, owner of Ruvina 3, was all smiles as she watched the boat’s crew unload tons of fish on Saturday.
“Not being able to fish in the Scarborough Shoal had been very difficult for boat owners like me,” Arcalas said. “I hope this will be the start for us to fish again freely in the Scarborough Shoal.”
In 2014, she said, one of her boats was destroyed by the Chinese when they fired water cannons as it anchored at the shoal.
Officials in Pangasinan and Zambales were surprised to hear about the fishermen’s successful return to the shoal, which came after President Duterte’s recent state visit to China.
Officials said the issue was quietly raised in Beijing. The trip, described as a goodwill visit, also netted millions in promised investments from Chinese firms.
Scarborough Shoal, known to Filipinos as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, is a triangular chain of reefs and rocks surrounding a 150-square-kilometer lagoon. It is about 240 kilometers southwest of Infanta town, and a traditional fishing ground for locals.
In 2012, China seized the shoal after a two-month standoff with the Philippines and had since barred Filipinos from fishing there, sometimes using water cannons to drive them away. Manila then filed a case with a UN-backed arbitral tribunal, which in July, ruled in favor of the Philippines.
No green light
But Beijing has steadfastly ignored the ruling. Chinese Coast Guard vessels and Filipino fishermen have been playing a potentially dangerous cat-and-mouse game at the shoal, ending in few instances with the fishermen getting hurt.
Nestor Domenden, Ilocos regional director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), said the Infanta fishermen should have waited first for the green light from Malacañang before venturing back to the shoal.
Domenden said they were not aware of the Scarborough trips, but stressed it was also possible that some of the Infanta boats were registered at the BFAR in Central Luzon because they dock in Zambales province, about 5 km from Infanta.
No formal advisories yet
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which had earlier discouraged fishermen from returning to the shoal to avoid a clash with the Chinese coast guards, said it has not issued formal advisories against going to Scarborough.
“We issued clearances [to fishermen] who wanted to conduct fishing west of Zambales but they don’t usually specify if they would go to
the [shoal],” PCG station commander Jonathan Marfil told the Inquirer.
“As far as PCG Subic is concerned, we have no advisories to the fishermen not to go or fish in Scarborough area. But I’m not sure if they can now go near the shoal,” he said.
Fishermen were required to register but only to track their movements and prevent them from sailing during bad weather.
Chinese vessels were still at the shoal as of Friday when the Infanta fishermen left the area, Bauya said.
No more Chinese ships?
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella welcomed the news Saturday, calling it a “welcome development.”
“There is no sign of Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the area. While we do not have any official explanation for this, it sends a positive signal regarding relations,” Abella said.
“Since three days ago there are no longer Chinese ships, coast guard or navy, in the Scarborough area,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana added. “If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”
Lorenzana did not explain the circumstances of the Chinese pullout from the shoal, however. —WITH REPORTS FROM ALLAN MACATUNO, AP AND AFP/TVJ