‘I just laughed at them,’ Filipino fisher says of Chinese pursuers
WEST PHILIPPINE SEA, Philippines — Filipino fisherman Arnel Satam guns the motor of his tiny wooden boat as he makes a dash for the shallow waters of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, with Chinese coast guard speedboats in hot pursuit.
In a high-seas chase lasting several minutes, Satam tries in vain to outrun the faster boats in the hope of slipping inside the ring of reefs controlled by China, where fish are more abundant.
Friday’s pursuit was witnessed by Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalists aboard the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ship BRP Datu Bankaw, which was delivering food, water, and fuel to Filipino fishermen plying the contested waters, sometimes for weeks on end.
The fishermen complained that China’s actions at Panatag Shoal were robbing them of a key source of income and a place to shelter safely during a storm.
“I want to fish in there,” a defiant Satam, 54, told journalists as he stood barefoot on his light blue outrigger bearing a Superman “S” emblem.
“I do this thing often. They already chased me earlier today,” he said, adding the Chinese speedboats had bumped his vessel. “I just laughed at them.”
Panatag Shoal is 240 kilometers west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and nearly 900 km from the nearest major Chinese landmass of Hainan.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China helped negotiate, countries have jurisdiction over the natural resources within about 370 km (200 nautical miles) of their shore.
China, which claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, snatched control of Panatag Shoal from the Philippines in 2012.
Since then, it has deployed coast guard and other vessels to block or restrict access to the fishing ground that has been tapped by generations of Filipinos.
Philippine officials also accused the Chinese Coast Guard of laying a 300-meter-long floating barrier across the entrance to the shoal shortly before the BRP Datu Bankaw arrived.
The temporary barrier “prevents Filipino Fishing Boats from entering the shoal and depriving them of their fishing and livelihood activities,” the Philippine Coast Guard and BFAR said in a joint statement condemning its installation.
It took 18 hours for the BRP Datu Bankaw to make the more than 300-km journey to Panatag Shoal from a port in Manila Bay.
More than 50 wooden outrigger fishing vessels, which Filipinos call “mother boats,” were operating in the deep waters outside the shoal when the Philippine ship dropped anchor last Wednesday.
Some of the fishing crews had been there for two weeks already, using nets, lines, and spears to catch tuna, grouper, and red snapper.
To enable them to stay at sea for longer and catch more fish, BFAR carries out regular resupply missions.
Four Chinese coast guard boats patrolled the waters, keeping the BRP Datu Bankaw and Filipino fishermen away from the shoal.
The voice of a Chinese coast guard radio operator crackled over the airwaves 15 times, ordering the BRP Datu Bankaw to “immediately” leave “Chinese territory.”
The instruction was repeated in English on a scrolling digital message board on one of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels.
Unfazed by the warnings, the 12 crew members of the BRP Datu Bankaw distributed 60 metric tons of fuel in blue plastic jerry cans to the fishing boats, as well as food packs for those running low on provisions.