Chinese boats harvest giant clams, corals
BAJO DE MASINLOC, Zambales—In this uninhabited shoal, you see the most beautiful hues of green and blue in the waters of the West Philippine Sea. Glistening clear water defines the base of the rocks and reefs. At low tide, fishermen actually walk on them.
At first look, Bajo de Masinloc could be a tourist attraction. Except that it is in the middle of nowhere.
Those who go there see Bajo de Masinloc (internationally known as Scarborough Shoal and locally called Panatag Shoal) as an opportunity for trade and an important territorial marker.
On Thursday, fishing vessels allegedly from China were harvesting giant clams and corals enough to fill their black-and-red mother ship. Chalky smoke rise in the air as the small vessels pulled their catch with ropes.
Nearby were three Chinese Coast Guard ships with bow numbers 3210, 3062 and 3383.
Not far away, Filipino fishing boats milled around, as did what appeared to be two Vietnamese fishing vessels.
“Those are our corals and giant clams,” our pilot said over his headset as he pointed to the haul on the Chinese fishing vessel.
His copilot noted that the men in the smaller vessels were wearing wet suits. “They must have been diving for the harvest,” he said.
Inquirer photographer Niño Jesus Orbeta was told how to distinguish the vessels from one another: the Philippine-owned boats had “katig” (outriggers); the Vietnamese were slightly rounded; the Chinese were guarded by the Chinese Coast Guard.
A white ship was cruising toward a Filipino fishing vessel when our plane arrived, but stopped when we flew lower.
Our pilot said the foreign vessel did not look like it was going to drive the Filipino vessel away. “The Chinese Coast Guard had already passed the other Filipino vessels and did nothing,” he said.
The scene observed by the Inquirer appeared benign, compared to the standoff between Philippine and Chinese surveillance vessels here in 2012, and to an incident last January, in which the Chinese Coast Guard fired water cannon at Filipino fishermen to drive them away from the shoal.
But the harmful effects of harvesting corals and giant clams, and the slow destruction of the shoal, on the ecosystem are far-reaching.
Also, the steady presence of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels, which number from three to five at any given time, indicates how the Chinese have effectively seized the shoal.
There was no Philippine Coast Guard vessel in the area. But the Naval Forces Northern Luzon regularly monitors the shoal.
One way of surveillance is through the Naval Air Group under the Philippine fleet of the Philippine Navy.
The Naval Air Group’s maritime surveillance takes place amid questions about who is guarding Philippine territory against China’s incursions and protecting Filipino fishermen.
“The Navy never left Bajo de Masinloc. The Navy aircraft flies there regularly,” Col. Ariel Caculitan, Naval Air Group commander, told the Inquirer in an interview.
Caculitan said the military had not abandoned Bajo de Masinloc, contrary to criticism following the Philippine government’s recalling its ships to ease tension during the 2012 standoff with the Chinese Coast Guard.
The Naval Air Group is one of the military units used by the Armed Forces in guarding the West Philippine Sea.
“We feel good whenever we fly over Bajo de Masinloc. We feel we are doing the honorable thing for the country. There is always a patriot in us,” Caculitan said. “Without singling out any country, our point is, we are protecting what is ours.”
Bajo de Masinloc is a rich fishing ground 220 kilometers off Zambales province. A ship from Zambales traveling at 12 knots would take 10 hours to reach Bajo de Masinloc. At 18 knots, it would take nearly seven hours.
Going to the shoal
The Inquirer took a small fixed-wing aircraft for the aerial observation of Bajo de Masinloc that took us nearly four hours, including the 35-minute survey over the disputed shoal.
With nothing to see but clouds in the sky and the sea below, it was easy to doze off. But the static chatter of a man and a woman speaking in what sounded like Chinese, which we heard on our headphones, kept us awake.
The conversation lasted a few minutes then stopped. “They could be fishermen,” our pilot said.
As we neared it, Bajo de Masinloc looked breathtakingly beautiful. And it was quiet on the headphones.
Our first task was to look for the Chinese vessels. They were not hard to spot. The Chinese Coast Guard ships proudly flew their red flags.
The sight of the harvested giant clams and corals only made us gasp.
The huge Chinese fishing vessel reportedly had come from Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), another disputed territory in the Spratly archipelago further south.
The Inquirer learned that two weeks ago, this vessel was spotted in Bajo de Masinloc still without the harvest.
We circled over Bajo de Masinloc three times, once low enough for us to clearly see the fishermen looking up at us.
Each small vessel looked like a house in disarray, with laundry hanging outside and styro boxes stacked all over inside.
Fishermen, we learned, stay in Bajo de Masinloc for weeks, even months, to make the most of the long travel and the rich fishing ground.
“Chinese incursions are actually forms of psychological warfare to confuse us, or simply put, to confuse the enemy. It’s a simple yet sophisticated operational tactic using the art of war, which is employed by our giant neighbor,” Chester Cabalza told the Inquirer when sought for comment last week on the Jan. 27 water cannon incident.
Cabalza, a professor at the University of the Philippines and the National Defense College of the Philippines, specializes in China affairs.
Cabalza said the Chinese Coast Guard “didn’t arrest our fishermen because [Bajo de Masinloc] is within the West Philippine Sea.”
He cited Administrative Order No. 29, Section 1, issued by President Aquino, which defines the extent of the maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago and calls the waters there West Philippine Sea.
“The West Philippine Sea only refers to the part of the South China Sea within the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and the Bajo de Masinloc. It represents a portion of the South China Sea that the Philippines claims as part of its maritime territory,” Cabalza said.
For security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio, the Chinese arresting Filipino fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc “can lead to a messy situation such as possible loss of life as more lethal weapons may be used to quell the resistance of the Filipino crew.”
“The use of water cannon is considered by the Chinese a more convenient way to drive away the fishermen who are in smaller boats. All the Chinese need to do is to disrupt any fishing operation by the Filipinos, which is easy for them as typical Philippine fishing boats are flimsy and small, compared to the large trawlers of other countries,” Custodio said.
For him, the Philippine government has not placed any deterrence in Bajo de Masinloc “since it is for all intents and purposes being occupied by the Chinese.”
Cabalza said the “only way we can place enough deterrence in Panatag Shoal and Ayungin Shoal is through legal means.”
“Diplomacy and the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos) should prevail. Secondary deterrence would only be the deployment of our Navy and Coast Guard ships to monitor and patrol our maritime territories in Panatag and Ayungin shoals,” he said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.