MASINLOC, Zambales—In a place 12 hours away by motorized outrigger from this town’s coastline, which locals call “Karburo,” fishermen from the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Taiwan peacefully coexist and share the bounties of the sea.
On several occasions, Mario Frones, 54, said he and his fellow Filipino fishermen, after a hard day at sea, would board foreign fishing vessels to share stories, food and even a drink or two with the foreigners.
“We have no problems with them. Sometimes we even go aboard each other’s boats to drink and have a little fun,” Frones said in Filipino.
Karburo is internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, a group of half-submerged rock formations 124 nautical miles (223 kilometers) west of Zambales province that both China and the Philippines claim is part of their territory.
The Philippines calls the area Panatag Shoal. China refers to it as Huangyan Island.
On April 14, Frones, as he had done in the last 12 years, set out to sea with fellow fishermen. They steered their boats toward Karburo, the place nearest to the coast that abound with fish.
It’s only money
But the following day, at about noon, they were greeted at the shoal by a small flotilla of boats carrying Philippine Coast Guard troops.
“They said we shouldn’t stay there anymore. They said there was going to be trouble with the Chinese,” Frones said. “Tensions with the Chinese had happened before, but this was different,” he said.
Frones owned three of the fishing boats in the shoal. He ordered them to go home.
“I didn’t want to risk drawing the ire of the Chinese, or be caught in the crossfire,” Frones said. “Besides, it is only money. We’ll just go back later, when things return to normal.”
Frones’ boats and the others left the area without any catch, forgoing tens of thousands of pesos, and returned to their village here.
“It was like a procession,” Frones said. “There were nine of us, with about 70 fishermen on board. Nobody stayed behind, except the foreign fishermen.”
Asked why his group chose the 12-hour run to Scarborough, risking being blocked by Chinese patrol vessels in the area, Frones said: “It’s the only place around where you can catch tons of fish. And that’s for sure, so long as the weather is good. If we stay around Masinloc Bay, we won’t catch much.”
Sharing sea’s bounty
Frones said proof of the shoal’s richness as a fishing ground was the catch of two to three tons of different varieties of fish for each boat on trips that would last for at least a week. On good days, the boats would unload large talakitok (jacks), tanigue (Spanish mackerel), maya-maya (red snapper), lobster and a fish known here as taringan.
From January to April, Frones said, fishermen from Zambales, Bataan and Pangasinan provinces converge on Scarborough Shoal, along with fishermen from China, Vietnam and Taiwan, to share the sea’s bounty.
But from May to December, only a few risk going there. “That’s when there are storms, and the weather is generally bad,” Frones explained. “You won’t catch much.”
He said Filipino fishermen used spears to catch fish and compressors to breathe under water.
“We put the fish in ice during transport. We have people who stay there for weeks on end, and the others transport the fish haul back to Masinloc,” he said.
“This has been our way of life for a long time. I’ve been doing this for more than 12 years, but some of my men have been doing this all their lives,” he said.
The trip back to Masinloc, when their boats are heavy with the catch, takes 15 to 18 hours, he said.
No Filipino fishermen have gone to Scarborough since the standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels began nearly a month ago, Frones said.
“My men say the Chinese marine surveillance vessels are around most of the time. In the past, they rarely, if ever, came near Karburo or stayed long,” he said.
“They just usually made their rounds and then left. They never interfered with our fishing there before,” he said.
Frones said he believed Scarborough Shoal belonged to the Philippines, but he and his men felt no animosity toward foreign fishermen coming to the area.
“We hope this will be resolved soon because our families rely on Karburo to make a living. We have done so for a very long time,” he said.
Dario Diaz, 58, head of Masinloc’s Bantay Dagat (sea patrol), said the only problem with some foreigners fishing in the shoal is their use of sodium cyanide.
“Fishermen who have been there say that some foreigners use drums of this stuff to stun the fish, and then haul them out when they float,” Diaz said.
“This is harmful to the environment. The corals are destroyed; the cyanide bleaches them,” he said. “Our fishermen only use spears, but they come back with tons of fish every time,” he said.
Diaz said Masinloc fishermen, who have been prohibited from returning to the shoal until the standoff is resolved, had to be satisfied with fishing in Masinloc Bay.
‘Bajo de Masinloc’
Masinloc Councilor Helen Ebilane said old maps and documents show that Scarborough Shoal belongs to the Philippines.
“It was named Bajo de Masinloc by the Spaniards, and in Madrid, they have maps showing that place within Philippine territory,” she said.
Ebilane said the shoal is only 120 nautical miles from the town of Palauig. “Batanes is even farther out to sea than Scarborough, so how can the Chinese claim that it belongs to them?” she said.
Masinloc, she said, was one of the earliest towns of Zambales. The towns of Candelaria and Palauig were former villages of Masinloc.
“That’s why when the distance between Zambales and Scarborough was measured, they used Palauig as a reference. Palauig was still part of Masinloc then,” she said.
A resolution passed by the town council in March last year stated that Masinloc has a “historic claim” to Scarborough Shoal, which was cited in Republic Act No. 9522, the law that defines the archipelagic base lines of the Philippines.
The Masinloc resolution, which the Zambales provincial government has endorsed, read: “Scarborough Shoal/Reef, or Panatag Shoal (its Philippine name), more correctly described as a group of islands and reefs, is an atoll shape than a shoal, which is located between the Macclesfield Bank and Luzon, Philippines, in the [West Philippine Sea] and as with most of the landforms in this sea, sovereignty over the area is disputed.
“Most references exclude this atoll from inclusion in the Spratly Islands, of which the closest is 350 km to the southwest,” the resolution said.
The resolution described the shoal as “a triangle shaped chain of reefs and islands (but mostly rocks) 55 km around with an area of 150 km. It has a lagoon with [an] area of 130 sq km and depth of about 15 meters.”
It said many of the reefs are “just below water at high tide, while near the mouth of the lagoon are ruins of an iron tower, 8.3 meters high.”
Support from Zambales
Vice Governor Ramon Lacbain II said the people of Zambales and Masinloc supported the claim of the Philippine government that Scarborough Shoal is part of the Philippines.
Lacbain said the dispute should be settled through diplomacy and not through arms.
If China and the Philippines cannot settle the dispute by themselves, then the best solution is to go the international court, Lacbain said.