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MANILA, Philippines – Filipino fishermen are not heading out to the Scarborough Shoal area these days, and it's not because of a Philippine government ban on fishing.
They said they are scared of being harassed by Chinese boats and have thus decided to stay away indefinitely, with or without a Philippine government ban.
The fishermen’s stand was known a day after news agencies reported a Chinese fishing fleet of 30 vessels has begun operating in waters around the disputed Spratly Islands, in what is seen as Beijing’s signal that it was bent on exploiting resources in all marine territory that it claims in the region.
The fleet is the largest to go to the Spratlys, which are a major fishing ground with a potential catch of around 5 million tons a year.
Scarborough standoff spooks fishermen
Last May 2, as the standoff between the Philippines and China at Scarborough Shoal entered its fourth week, InterAksyon.com reported that local fishermen in the coastal town of Masinloc have started to feel the effects of not venturing out to sea due to fears of being caught in the stalemate.
Boat operator Macario Forones, who has been in the business of deploying local fishermen to the shoal since 1999 and buying their catch, said in an earlier interview with InterAksyon.com that the fishermen have ceased venturing out to sea since April 15, or five days after a Philippine Navy warship was prevented by a Chinese vessel from apprehending Chinese fishing boats filled with various marine life, including endangered Philippine species. There were giant clams, corals and turtles.
The usual catch at the shoal include lapu-lapu, talakitok, dalagang bukid and lobsters.
Forones estimated then he had lost already an estimated P300,000 worth of income.
Efren Forones, Macario’s fisherman-cousin, said that since the dispute, he has lost P3,000 worth of weekly income that boat operators pay him to go fish in the shoal.
Macario was among those warned by the Coast Guard within the first week of the standoff not to venture out to sea to avoid being caught in the tension, as the Philippine side responded to China’s deployment of more maritime surveillance vessels and more fishing boats.
BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the country’s biggest and newest warship, was later pulled out from the shoal.
Marlena, one of the local residents, told InterAksyon earlier that since her husband has stopped fishing, they had to resort to other “side lines” to earn income such as painting boats and houses that give them only P250 income a day.
Masinloc, fishing town
The town of Masinloc is largely a fishing town, with 70- to 80 percent of its revenues coming mostly from the fishing industry. It has an estimated 3,000 local fishermen from a population of 44,432.
Scarborough Shoal is located approximately 124 kilometers off Masinloc and takes up to 16 hours to reach using the small motorized banca.
In an earlier interview with InterAksyon, Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora said the fishing industry is bearing the brunt of the problem at Scarborough Shoal.
“The impact on fishermen is big, because they have long relied on fishing for their livelihood. Although there is a marine sanctuary, it’s not enough so most of them venture out to Scarborough. Many fishermen go there,” Edora said.
Without the standoff, fishermen said they used to interact with other fishermen at the shoal.
Vianny Mola, a fisherman for 12 years, said they are used to seeing Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Chinese fishermen at the shoal but this is the first time they encountered a dispute with another country.
‘Scarborough is ours’
Local officials in Masinloc reiterated that the Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territoriy and is under the province of Zambales.
In fact, even before the dispute, the Sangguniang Bayan of Masinloc passed a resolution dated March 16, 2011 proclaiming Scarborough Shoal, locally known as “Bajo de Masinloc” as under the town of Masinloc.
The problem is, the town of Masinloc has no existing records available to prove their claim as all maps and documents were lost when fire burned down the town hall of Masinloc in 1999.
Still, Masinloc Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bautista stressed that without a doubt Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory.
“International law recognizes that it is within 200 nautical miles of our Exclusive Economic Zone. I don’t think we need to prove our claim that it’s ours, even if we go to the UN,” he said.