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Fishers were in shoal for shelter

This undated handout photo taken by the Philippine Navy and released April 11, 2012, by the Department of Foreign Affairs shows Chinese surveillance ships off Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. AFP FILE PHOTO

DAGUPAN CITY, Philippines—For almost a month now, Ramoncito Dumas has been fishing in an area in the West Philippine Sea not far from his house in the fishing village of Cato in Infanta town in Pangasinan province.

His catch would only be enough for his family’s meal for the day. He used to catch more, earning extra cash when he and his crew sailed to the open sea and fished for days.

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But in late January, Chinese vessels fired water cannons at Dumas and his crew while they and other fishing boats were anchored at the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground off Zambales province in the West Philippine Sea.

“We can no longer go far,” said Dumas, 28, in a telephone interview on Thursday. “We won’t have any place to hide when the weather at sea suddenly becomes violent.”

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The Scarborough Shoal, which, Dumas said, is about 140 nautical miles (nm) from his village, had served as a mid-sea refuge for fishing boats when they encountered stormy weather at sea.

Huge waves

Fishermen from his town and neighboring Zambales would sail about 100 nm into the West Philippine Sea to catch tuna and other deep-sea fish.

“We went there not to fish,” Dumas said. “We were there because at that time (Jan. 27), the wind suddenly became strong and whipped up huge waves. We had nowhere to go but to the shoal.”

He said that aside from his boat, about 20 other fishing boats headed and sought shelter in the shoal.

“When we arrived there, we saw three Chinese ships. They seemed to have just ignored us,” Dumas said.

It was on their second day in the shoal, he said, when the Chinese vessels started driving them away. The ships moved near the boats and a man would come motioning the boat’s crew members to go away.

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“But in our case, the ship moved beside our boat and fired water cannons, drenching us and the fish we were sun-drying,” Dumas said.

They didn’t budge

Another fishing boat, he said, was also sprayed with water.

“But because the wind was still strong that day, we didn’t budge. We left the following day when the sea was a little calmer,” he said.

Another Infanta fishermen, Danilo Meru, said when the Chinese started spraying their boats with water, they sailed toward the western side of the shoal.

“But the Chinese vessel followed us. It was only about 15 meters away. We were so afraid but we can’t go back to the sea. It would be more scary going back into the sea because of the [strong] wind. We contacted each other and decided to drop anchor,” said Meru, 50, also of Barangay (village) Cato.

Dumas said although the water cannon did not hurt him and anyone of his crew members, he shuddered.

“I felt afraid because it was something that we did not expect,” he said.

First time

He said he and his crew members just tried to avoid getting hit by the water gushing out of the cannons so they would not get hurt.

Dumas said he took a video footage using his mobile phone as the Chinese ships drove away the fishing boats from the shoal.

“This was the first time that this happened to us. We had docked in the shoal in the past and we were not driven away,” Dumas said.

He said even his father and grandfather, who frequented the shoal during bad weather at sea, did not experience what he just had.

Dumas also denied that they did “provocative acts,” like what the Chinese foreign ministry had said on Wednesday.

“We are aware of China’s claim to the shoal. Again, we were just there to take cover from the bad weather,” Dumas said.

The shoal used to be a free zone for local fishermen until the Chinese began patrolling the West Philippine Sea.

“We stayed there for months, and some workers would arrive to bring food, ice and other provisions. But we can’t do that anymore,” said Ricardo Magno, 47, a fisherman, said.

But Magno said not all Chinese they had encountered in the shoal were aggressive. “It depends on the crew of the vessels that come. Some are good and they allow us to fish, as long as we don’t go very near the shoal,” he said.

In Bolinao town, municipal fishery officer Florante Garcia said the local government had advised fishermen to avoid fishing in the Scarborough Shoal to ensure their safety while the territorial conflict between the Philippines and China remained unresolved.

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TAGS: China, fishermen, Philippines, Ramoncito Dumas, Scarborough Shoal, sea dispute, water cannon
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