32 Chinese ships in shoal, bar Filipino fishers
Chinese maritime ships are denying Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing grounds in the lagoon of Panatag Shoal, a chain of reefs and rocks off Zambales province whose ownership is being disputed by China and the Philippines even as Chinese vessels were seen continuing to mass in Panatag, also known as Bajo de Masinloc and its international name, Scarborough Shoal—which China claims to own even if the shoal is 472 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese coast.
According to the local government of Masinloc, which is only 124 nautical miles from Panatag, the town’s fishermen have reported that Chinese government vessels had blocked their entry to the lagoon.
The military reported that the number of Chinese vessels in the Panatag Shoal has increased to 33, from 14 last week.
The Philippines has only two vessels in the area. These are the BRP Edsa II, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel (SARV 002) and the MCS 3001, a vessel belonging to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
China currently has three big ships in the area. These are the Chinese Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) 310 which is said to be its most powerful maritime ship, and the Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships 75 and 81.
According to the military’s Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom), seven other Chinese fishing vessels and 23 utility boats have been seen inside the lagoon.
RJ Bautista, secretary to Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora, said the Chinese maritime ships were preventing Filipino fishermen from fishing in the lagoon.
Rich fishing grounds
The vast lagoon constitutes rich fishing grounds for Filipino fishermen who before the stand-off with China usually stayed to fish in the area for days.
“They are still prevented from going in (the lagoon). They can fish outside. But they are barred inside,” Bautista told defense reporters in a phone interview.
“We were told they were prevented by the (Chinese) Navy or Coast Guard. Our fishermen are okay with Chinese fishermen. The problem is they have gunboats there,” he said.
Bautista said the Chinese ships were positioned at the entrance to the lagoon.
“Those who want to go in are shooed away. Since they cannot understand each other, our fishermen are afraid,” he said, adding that the Chinese ships would train powerful floodlights on Filipino fishing boats.
Bautista said the fishermen were only recently allowed to return to the shoal, which the locals refer to as Karburo (after the international name Scarborough Shoal) since the stand-off began last April 10.
“That’s why their catch is not as much, unlike before,” he said.
Coast Guard helpless
The Coast Guard ship is reportedly aware of the fishermen’s plight but was not of any help.
“I think our Coast Guard was also barred from going near (the lagoon),” Bautista said, relaying reports from fishermen.
“Our fishermen are simply told not to be afraid. But at the same time they are told not to provoke so there won’t be any confrontation,” he said.
Nolcom spokesperson Capt. Aurelio Kigis said they have no information that Filipino fishermen were being barred from the lagoon, and could not comment.
War of words so far
The Panatag Shoal incident started last April 8 when the Philippine Navy on a routine sovereignty patrol spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels moored inside the shoal. Navy personnel boarded the vessels and discovered on board illegally obtained endangered turtles, baby sharks, giant clams and a large amount of corals.
The Navy dispatched its only warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to the area on April 10 but before the ship could tow the poachers to the nearest police station, two Chinese maritime ships arrived and blocked their arrest.
The stand-off at Panatag has so far been accompanied only by a war of words.
The Philippines maintains that Bajo de Masinloc, described as a ring-shaped coral reef, which has several rocks encircling a lagoon in the West Philippine Sea, is about 124 nautical mile (220 km) from the nearest coast of Luzon and well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
It said the shoal is an integral part of Philippine territory, a part of the municipality of Masinloc, Zambales. It said the shoal is also not part of the Spratlys, the chain of islets and atolls to its south that is claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The government said the actions of the Chinese fishing vessels were a serious violation of the Philippine sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction. The poaching of endangered marine resources violoated the Fisheries Code and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), it said.
Relative ships’ positions
The Nolcom said that as of Sunday, May 6, the BRP Edsa II was 7.1 nautical miles southeast off Panatag Shoal.
The Coast Guard vessel has moved farther by 5.7 nautical miles southeast from its previous position last week which was 1.4 nautical miles northeast off South Rock, a rock feature of Panatag Shoal.
The MCS 3001 is 1.6 nautical miles northeast off South Rock.
Meanwhile, the Chinese CMS 75 is 3.5 nautical miles southeast off North Rock, another Panatag rock feature, and a distance of 8.1 nautical miles northeast from BRP Edsa II.
The CMS 81 is 1.04 nautical miles southeast off North Rock and a distance of 8.1 nautical miles northeast from BRP Edsa II.
The FLEC 310 is 8.4 nautical miles southeast off North Rock and a distance of 7.5 nautical miles from BRP Edsa II.
2nd cutter for Navy
Vice Adm. Alexander Pama, Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command, said a second US Coast Guard cutter that the Navy has acquired, will be arriving in the country in November.
The Hamilton-class cutter will be officially turned over to the Navy on May 23, following which the training of Filipino crew and adjustments to the vessel will follow, Pama said.
He said the government will be spending about the same amount it spent for the first US Coast Guard cutter that it acquired, which has been renamed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.
Pama said last year that P400 million was spent for the training and refurbishment of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.