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Small PH fishermen losers in sea dispute

FOR SALE  Fishermen Silver Lopez and Raymart de Claro remove old paint and scratches, scrape off patches of barnacles on the 9-meter fishing boat Marvin-I. The vessel is up for sale since its owner has abandoned the idea of going back to the disputed Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.  ALLAN MACATUNO/INQUIRER CENTRAL LUZON

FOR SALE Fishermen Silver Lopez and Raymart de Claro remove old paint and scratches, scrape off patches of barnacles on the 9-meter fishing boat Marvin-I. The vessel is up for sale since its owner has abandoned the idea of going back to the disputed Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. ALLAN MACATUNO/INQUIRER CENTRAL LUZON

MASINLOC, Zambales—Unmindful of the sweltering heat, fishermen Silver Lopez, 38, and Raymart de Claro, 25, started cleaning the hull of a fishing vessel, removing old paint and scratches and scraping off patches of barnacles around it.

They spent the whole day plugging leaks and hammering rivets, in an attempt to ensure the seaworthiness of the 9-meter FB Marvin-I, which had been moored near Masinloc’s public market for months.

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“This boat has to go. Its owner is looking for a buyer so we’re making it look neat,” Lopez told the Inquirer.

Lopez, a resident of Barangay (village) North Poblacion, said the Marvin-I was the same boat that was attacked by a Chinese Coast Guard cutter, using water cannon, near the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) on Jan. 27, 2013. The shoal is known to locals as Bajo de Masinloc (Masinloc Shoal).

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It was the first time that Chinese coast guards drove Filipino fishermen away from the shoal, Lopez said. “It happened while we were taking refuge in the shoal. The weather was so bad at that time but what those Chinese did to us was even worse.”

The owner of the Martin-I, Mario Forones, has decided to stop sending the boat back to Panatag, leaving Lopez and other fishermen no choice but to abandon the idea of returning to the shoal and find another source of income.

While the Philippine government has taken the territorial dispute to the United Nations’ arbitral tribunal, the livelihood of small fishermen on the western coast of Luzon has become collateral damage in the escalating feud between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea.

Panatag Shoal is a triangular chain of reefs and rocks surrounding a lagoon. It has a perimeter of 46 kilometers and an area of 150 square kilometers, making it a rich fishing ground.

The shoal is 240 km from the coastline of Zambales province and western Pangasinan province, well within the 370-km exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

Fishermen’s shelter

Generations of fishermen from Infanta town in Pangasinan have used the shoal as a shelter during storms. But with the territorial dispute far from settled, fishermen in Infanta have been consigned to waiting and taking chances.

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Delfin de Vera, 71, said the Masinloc fishermen used to leave Dasol Bay in Barangay Cato at 2 p.m. and arrive at the shoal about 8 a.m. the following day.

“There was no GPS (global positioning system) device yet at that time. We only used a compass. But we knew that we were there when we saw the dilapidated barge used by Americans as target as they dropped bombs from their planes,” De Vera said, referring to target practice by the US Air Force during the days of the US military bases in the Philippines.

When they were done fishing and had sailed back home, they would unload tons of fish, earning more than enough money for their families’ needs.

In January 2014, several fishermen from Cato were among the group driven away with a water cannon attack by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel guarding the shoal.

In April this year, 80 fishermen in 15 boats from Pangasinan, Zambales and Bataan provinces were driven away from the shoal by a Chinese vessel.

“Many more fishermen from our village experienced being hit in water cannon attacks there. These were unreported and undocumented. In fact, one of my boats was damaged,” said Joey Legaspi, a member of the Cato village council and a fishing boat operator.

Lopez described the attack as “ruthless” and “inhumane,” considering that the shoal had served as their shelter from storms for generations.

“We tried to go back to the shoal after that first attack in 2013 but we were repeatedly barred by China’s Coast Guard from getting near that area,” he said.

De Claro said the Filipinos’ small boats were no match for China’s warships and patrol vessels guarding the shoal so he left Panatag for good.

He has also taken a different path because of the territorial dispute. “I don’t fish anymore. Fishing has never been the same. I’m better off as a construction worker,” he said.

Slow-paced, cowardly

Both Lopez and De Claro expressed dismay at what they described as “slow-paced” and “cowardly” actions of the Philippine government in the territorial dispute with China.

“It seems that what our government is doing will only lead us to nowhere. How can we go against an aggressive China?” Lopez said.

“To this day, we have seen no concrete moves by the national government. While we’re trying to deal with the issue in a peaceful manner, China is getting more aggressive,” he added.

Lopez and De Claro, however, remained hopeful that they would be able to fish again at Panatag unafraid. “We want to go back to the shoal. That place is teeming with fish of all sorts. You will never find that elsewhere,” Lopez said.

According to local fishermen, the waters around the shoal, even in the shallow parts, teem with fish.

“The shoal is a paradise. Different kinds of fish, such as cavalla (talakitok), yellowfin, skipjack, blue marlin and red grouper abound in the area,” Lopez said.

Because of the abundance of fish, Charlito Maniago, Cato village chief, said fishermen from his community still fished there despite the risk. “They have no fish to catch in the ‘payaw’ and they have to recoup their expenses for the fishing trip,” Maniago said.

The payaw are artificial reefs put up by private individuals or companies 185 km from Cato in Infanta. These structures attract tuna and fishermen are allowed by the owners to fish there.

Costly business

A five-day expedition of five to seven fishermen to Panatag requires P30,000 to defray the cost of provisions and fuel. Those in bigger boats need at least P100,000.

When they come back, the fishermen will have to pay the financier. What is left of their catch will be divided equally among them, with the boat owner getting two shares.

The catch is worth at least P100,000. But fishing at the shoal is seasonal, only from January to May.

Amelita de la Cruz, 54, a fish vendor from Barangay Inhobol in Masinloc, said the town was barely coping with the dwindling catch. “More often than not, there’s not much to buy from the fishermen,” she said.

The fishermen work all day long, sometimes for days depending on the volume of their catch. “They often get sick because they spend a long time at sea, but their catch is not enough to support their families,” De la Cruz said.

All the national government can do for them is to promise that the Philippines will continue to defend its territory.

UN arbitration

“The Philippine government and the Filipino people are determined to defend what is legitimately ours,” Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Charles Jose told the fishermen and representatives of private groups in a forum at Subic Bay Freeport on May 29.

Assistant Secretary Jose said the Philippines was the “most vocal” among Southeast Asian countries with claims overlapping with China’s in the South China Sea.

During the forum titled “What is ours is ours,” Jose explained that the government is pursuing two tracks—diplomatic and legal—in dealing with the territorial dispute with China. He said the Philippine approach was guided by the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes and the primacy of the rule of law.

On Jan. 22, 2013, the Philippines filed a case against China in the United Nations Permanent Tribunal for the Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

The tribunal will hear oral arguments from July 7 to 13 this year, and its decision is expected to be released between January and April next year, Jose said.

Aggressive behavior

The DFA official said China wanted the Philippine government to pursue bilateral negotiations and agree to its joint development proposal instead of submitting the case for arbitration.

China, however, has been lording it over the West Philippine Sea—the waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea—reclaiming land to build artificial islands around reefs in the area, including reefs claimed by Manila.

Explaining China’s aggressive behavior, Jose said Beijing had established Sansha City in the Paracel group to administer the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the South China Sea, blockaded Panatag Shoal, and had been harassing Philippine supply vessels to prevent the restocking of a small Filipino garrison aboard the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

China has also issued new regulations that require foreign fishing vessels to obtain approval from Chinese authorities before fishing in the South China Sea, Jose said.

Moreover, Beijing frequently conducts military exercises and patrols in the West Philippine Sea, he said. It has violated safety zones at Galoc Oil Field, a Philippine oil platform located 60 km northwest of Palawan province, he said.

Massive land reclamation activities are going on at Mabini (Johnson South), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief) reefs, resulting in the destruction of the marine environment.

Jose said China’s action in the South China Sea greatly affected the Philippine fishing industry, but offered no hope of immediate relief to the fishermen.

“It creates tension in the area and threatens regional peace and stability,” he said, echoing expressions of concern from the other claimants and the United States.

Avoid Panatag

Officials at the Philippine Coast Guard’s detachment in Masinloc said they had been advising local fishermen to avoid Panatag Shoal because of China’s aggressiveness.

“We’re asking our fishermen to keep their distance from the shoal. It’s safer for them to stay about [90 km] from it,” said CPO Mino Torres, commander of the Masinloc detachment.

“Our authority is restricted. As much as we want to patrol the shoal, we have limited resources and we need to obtain go-signal from our headquarters,” he said.

In Pangasinan, Infanta Mayor Percival Mallare said he had met several times with fishermen in his town and had advised them not to go to the shoal to avoid getting hurt.

“But they still go there and I cannot be watching and stopping them all day,” Mallare said.

He said the Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy should stop the fishermen from going to Panatag.

“We cannot stop them, unless they are engaged in illegal activities, like blast fishing,” said Lt. Senior Grade Alexander Corpuz, Coast Guard station commander in Pangasinan.

“Besides, you can’t say if they are going to the shoal or not. Chances are they will not tell the truth. But we are visible in Infanta. We have a detachment in Cato,” he said.

Helping the fishermen

Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora said the local government had identified the needs of fishermen displaced from the Panatag Shoal and had offered them alternative livelihood.

“We’re not neglecting the needs of the fishermen. More than giving them financial assistance, we’re providing them other sources of income, especially those affected by the dispute in the West Philippine Sea,” Edora said.

She said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) would also provide financial aid to the fishermen.

“We’re organizing the fishermen, as the DSWD is ready to lend P5,000 to each of them. They can use the money to start small businesses to support their daily needs,” she said.

Zambales Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. has entered into an agreement with Vancouver-based Xanatos Marine Ltd. to establish the Provincial Coastal Watch and Monitoring System that will keep track of all vessels and their activities in the province’s territorial waters.

Lawyer Harry Roque Jr., known for his work on international law, has started talking with the displaced fishermen to gather firsthand information for a “coercion case” that he plans to file against China in the United Nations.

Roque has scheduled a dialogue with local fishermen for June 24 to draft their affidavits and file the case in the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“We will fight China but we will not use firearms or water cannon. We’re supported by our laws and human rights,” he said.

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