A West Philippine Sea story: Nights at the fish port

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

(2nd of three parts)

NAVOTAS FISH PORT – As the last light of the setting sun fades, another long, chaotic, and boisterous night begins here in Metro Manila’s biggest fish port or the Pondohan, a 47-hectare muddy labyrinthine marketplace.

Backlighted by the dark crimson sky, a rusting emerald green fishing vessel named Magdalena docks in one of the many age-old piers here. As if on cue, sweaty and shirtless porters in thick rubber boots unload hundreds of tubs filled with their latest catch – milkfish, sardines, flying fish and what-have-you, tossing these into hundreds of plastic pails lined in a row.

Sellers in slime-covered aprons, some sitting behind makeshift tables with dilapidated weighing scales, shout and negotiate the prices while eager buyers haggle for the lowest price possible.

The pungent smell of human sweat, polluted seawater, and fresh fish wafts in the early evening air.

Every night around this time, vessels from Luzon, the country’s biggest island, start arriving to a waiting crowd of hundreds of sellers and traders. This goes on until dawn or at about 3 a.m when the last vessel arrives.

Welcome to the Navotas Fish Port Complex, welcome to mayhem.

Any visitor would find the chaos dizzying: the fishes change hands in no time; porters toss the fish into the pails; sellers, their aprons stuffed with cash, negotiate prices in high decibels; traders ask for hefty discounts, sometimes in whispers, and soon prepare to leave with their latest hoard. Off to the public markets they go.

But busy as the nights are here at the port, the nights were even longer years ago, a fish port worker tells me, lasting all the way to the next day or until “Eat Bulaga,” the 42-year old noontime show, starts.

Those long nights that stretch all the way to noon the next day are gone, she laments.

In recent years, all the docking and trading and haggling end long before the sun rises.

The worker, who has been an employee of the port since the 1980s, attributes this slowdown to the encroachment of Chinese fishermen in Philippine waters.

Indeed, the country’s fishing production has been on a steady decline – from five million tons in 2011 to 4.3 million tons in 2018, government statistics showed.

Filipino fishermen attest to this, attributing it to the presence of the Chinese in Philippine waters. Some are fishermen, poachers harvesting giant clams or members of the Chinese coast guard themselves, and they drive away Filipino fishermen.

Gee Valderama, 36, of Infanta, Pangasinan, has been fishing for seven years now. Years ago, before the Chinese became more aggressive, he says, they could spend three to four days in Scarborough Shoal, a day’s boat ride away from Infanta, and bring home two to three tons of high-value species – from lapu-lapu or grouper, tanigue, the Spanish mackerel, to maya-maya or red snapper.

Now, it takes them much longer to do that, some eight to nine days, because they need to compete with the Chinese fishermen and because they have to play cat-and-mouse with the Chinese coast guard, he says.

The West Philippine Sea – where seven percent of the country’s annual fisheries production comes from – has been at the center of geopolitical disputes for the last 10 years or so.

Destroying the potential of the disputed seas

Third generation commercial fishing businessman Roderic Santos, president of a fish traders association, says that while the disputed fishing grounds aren’t really productive commercially, the bigger damage is on the coral reefs. This, in turn, negatively affects production and the catch of the smaller fishermen.

“The biggest effect is the destruction of coral reefs. They dumped construction materials to build hectares of artificial islands. In the process, they are destroying the fishing grounds and the whole ecology,” Santos says in an interview.

“That to me, is the biggest damage – they are destroying the potential of these waters – and it affects even commercial fishing,” he adds.

Mischief Reef, some 129 nautical miles west of Palawan, in the disputed Spratlys Islands, for instance, has been occupied by China since 1995 where it destroyed the ecosystem when it created a 550-hectare artificial island.

In March this year, authorities also sighted over 200 Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef, some 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan, within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Another bone of contention is Scarborough Shoal, 119 nautical miles away from Pangasinan.

On July 12, 2016, an international arbitration court ruled that China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over some parts of the West Philippine Sea had no legal basis. The landmark ruling, won by the administration of the late president Benigno Aquino III, rejected Beijing’s claims that it enjoys historic rights over most of the sea.

China has rejected the international court’s ruling, calling it “a piece of waste paper.”

Blood, sweat and tears

Every single piece of fish that finds its way to Filipinos’ table is a product of fishermen’s blood, sweat, and tears.  Fishermen spend weeks, even months at sea, away from their families. Their skin is sun-baked and their hands are calloused because of frostbite from hauling slabs of ice that keep their catch fresh.

Chinese encroachment has become an added burden for this already laborious life.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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