Zambales fishers won’t back down from Panatag as livelihood at stake
MASINLOC, Zambales, Philippines — Three large fishing vessels donated recently by the local government have emboldened local fishermen to venture out into Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), their traditional fishing ground some 240 kilometers from this coastal town.
But reports that China is exerting more effort to block them from fishing in the area have reignited concerns on the safety of fishing in the shoal, which Beijing is claiming despite it being within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In an interview on Monday, fisherman Enosentes Forones, 60, told the Inquirer that the latest attempt to drive them away from the shoal through a 300-meter-long floating barrier would disrupt their livelihood, but it would not prevent them from sailing to the area.
“If they (Chinese) will force us out of the shoal again, it’s going to be a huge loss for us. We spend so much for each trip to the area, around P80,000,” said Forones, pointing to the fishing vessels docked at the port area in Barangay Coto.
Forones, who is also boat skipper, has to travel between 14 and 18 hours along with 20 crew members who chose to return to the shoal despite experiencing harassment and intimidation by the China Coast Guard (CCG) in the past months.
“We won’t give up easily because there is no other way to earn. I’m a fisherman so I’ll be back to the shoal where we make a living,” Forones noted.
On Sunday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported that the CCG installed a 300-meter floating barrier southeast of Panatag, also called by locals as Bajo de Masinloc, to block Filipino fishing boats.
But even before the installation of the barrier, fishermen said they were unable to return to the lagoon inside the shoal due to the permanent presence of at least two CCG vessels in its passage.
Filipino fishermen consider the lagoon as a crucial area in the shoal, especially in times of turbulent weather and rough seas, because it serves as a safe harbor for fishing vessels.
According to Forones, there were still two Chinese vessels guarding the shoal when they went to the area in July.
He said they tried to enter the lagoon but were still driven away.
“We couldn’t anchor there because the speedboat of the [CCG] will approach and chase us. We can’t really get in,” Forones lamented.
Panatag Shoal is a triangle-shaped chain of reefs around a 150-km-wide lagoon.
China, which has sweeping claims in nearly all of the South China Sea, seized control of the shoal in 2012, prompting the country to seek a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
In 2016, the arbitral tribunal invalidated China’s claims, but Beijing refused to recognize the ruling.
As a result, many fishermen in the provinces of Zambales and Pangasinan continued to experience harassment from the CCG while fishing in Panatag, leading to the filing of several diplomatic protests. The PCG has been patrolling the waters of the shoal to keep Filipino fishers safe.
In March 2022, China warned the Philippines against “interfering” with its patrols in Panatag, saying the shoal and its waters are part of Chinese territory.
In February 2023, a video posted by the Peoples Development Institute, a nongovernment organization helping fishermen, showed that Chinese maritime militia boats once again harassed and ordered fishermen from Zambales to get out while the Filipinos were sailing near the shoal on Feb. 3 and Feb. 6.
Bobby Roldan, vice chair for Luzon of the fisherfolk group Pamalakaya, described the installation of the floating barriers as a “dastardly act” by the Chinese government.
“It will further impede fishing activities and consequently affect the country’s fishing production,” Roldan, also a fisherman from this town, said in a separate interview.
He added: “We are expecting more from our maritime authorities, such as enforcing the basic rules of engagement in a situation like this. The [PCG] or [the Philippine] Navy could just eject the buoys right away, as it (floating barrier) is against international law.”
Roldan said the Marcos administration must go beyond lodging diplomatic protests and “take necessary steps to have these nuisance floating objects immediately removed from our territorial waters.”