Maritime expert: PH must stop China fishers from wrecking Panatag reefs
DAGUPAN CITY — If the Philippine government does not stop Chinese clam harvesters from destroying the reefs at Panatag Shoal, China would reclaim land on what is left of the shoal and transform it into another artificial island, a maritime law expert said on Tuesday.
Jay Batongbacal, director of University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said Chinese fishermen had been using propellers mounted on small boats to break coral and dig into the shoal’s lagoon to gather giant clams since 2012.
A damaged reef would render the shoal useless, “and then China will just say, ‘Oh, the reef is dead. Let’s just convert it into an island,’” Batongbacal said.
Witness to digging
Jowe Legaspi, a boat owner in Barangay Cato in Infanta town, Pangasinan, said he had seen Chinese fishermen digging into the lagoon on one of his trips to Panatag Shoal—internationally known as Scarborough Shoal—before the standoff between Philippine Navy and Chinese vessels in 2012.
China seized the shoal and ignored the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that the shoal is a common fishing ground for Filipinos, Chinese and Vietnamese.
The ruling declared that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign right to fish and explore for resources in the West Philippine Sea.
“I thought they were digging then to look for natural gas. But I realized they were after the giant clams, which abounded at the shoal,” Legaspi said.
He said one of his cousins brought home a propeller used for breaking coral that the Chinese had left at the shoal.
“It’s a possibility that when the reefs die, they (Chinese) will reclaim these. That’s why it is very important that the government…take action on the issue of Scarborough Shoal and make it an urgent item,” Batongbacal told the Inquirer by phone.
He said the Chinese did the same at disputed reefs in the Spratlys before turning them into artificial islands.
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano on Wednesday called on the government to provide additional support for Filipino fishermen by establishing guidelines on how to deal with tensions in contested areas.
Alejano also proposed a system for fishing missions which would be accompanied by the Philippine Coast Guard. —With a report from Jerome Aning
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