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A West Philippine Sea story: Filipino fishermen pin hopes on next Phl president

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

(Last of three parts)

Fishing is best on nights of gibbous moons, but perhaps all other nights are still worth a try – full moon, half moon or when it’s just a faint sliver in the sky.

It was a waning moon on the night of Jan. 27, 2014, so says the calendar, which was not exactly the best time for fishing.

But Capt. Joy Betinol, a 53-year-old fisherman, and his team did not mind.

The day before, they left their homes in Infanta, Pangasinan for Scarborough Shoal, some 119 nautical miles away.

But around eight in the evening, soon after arriving at the sea shoal, a water cannon from a Chinese vessel hit them out of nowhere.

Like a volley of fire, the powerful swoosh of water came pounding on their small, wooden vessel, literally rocking their boat, knocking them off their feet and nearly throwing them into the water.

This went on for nearly an hour, but Capt. Joy did not budge.

Turning back was not an option because he would have nothing to bring to his family, he says.

“Mag-isang oras nangyari yun pero iniisip ko, kung uuwi ako, ano ipapakain ko sa pamilya ko? (That lasted for almost an hour, but I could not leave because if I turn back how would I feed my family?),” Capt. Joy says.

Everything they brought with them – from food to handheld radios – were drenched from the steady burst of water. The stand-off ended only when Capt. Joy decided not to proceed to the inner lagoon. He and his team ended up fishing just on the outskirts of the shoal.

Fishermen dock and take shelter in the shoal’s inner lagoon when the winds are strong and the waves are impossibly high, says Gee Valderama, 36, also from Infanta.

But Chinese fishermen started blocking the inner lagoon sometime in 2012, disrupting the once peaceful Scarborough Shoal where Filipino, Taiwanese, Indonesian, and Chinese fishermen used to fish freely.

The triangle-shaped chain of reefs, found within the Philippine Economic Zone, is claimed by China. But on July 12, 2016, the Aquino administration won an international arbitration court ruling invalidating China’s claims over some parts of the West Philippine Sea, including the shoal.

China has repeatedly rejected The Hague court’s ruling, calling it “a piece of waste paper.”

True enough, the Chinese have become more aggressive in driving away Filipino fishermen in the disputed seas.

“Go back! Go back!” Francis Betinol, 32, Capt. Joy’s younger brother, recalls the Chinese fishermen as saying through their megaphones whenever they spot Filipino fishermen.

Expired noodles, rotten vegetables

There were other unpleasant encounters.

Ricky Dumaran, 38, also a fisherman from Infanta, recalls a time when the Chinese boarded their boats and rummaged through their catch.

“They wanted to take almost everything that we caught. We let them because they’re powerful, but when they saw our box of lobsters, I resisted because some of them were for my pregnant wife,” he says.

To make sure the Chinese understood what he meant, Ricky put his hand over his tummy and gestured to show a giant belly like that of a pregnant woman.

It was only then that their unwanted visitors spared the lobsters and left.

The 36-year-old Valderama had a similar experience.

One night, many, many moons ago, before the Chinese cordoned off the inner lagoon of the shoal, Gee and his team were taking shelter there.

While they were sleeping, Chinese fishermen barged into their boats and woke them up to barter food.

“They opened our boxes filled with the freshest catch. But in exchange, they gave us expired noodles, rotten vegetables and spoiled apples,” says Gee, his voice expressing a mixture of frustration, anger, and disbelief.

Before the Chinese blocked off Scarborough, Filipino fishermen would bring home up to three tons of fish after spending only three to four days at the shoal.

Now, Gee says, they need eight to nine days to do that because they need to play cat-and-mouse with the Chinese coast guard if they want to go to the inner lagoon.

From fishing to oil exploration

Indeed, China’s claims over some parts of the West Philippine Sea have drastically affected fishing production in the country because of the damage that Chinese fishermen have done to the coral reefs, and because they drive away Filipino fishing boats.

It has also derailed oil exploration in many of the areas.

Jet ski to Spratlys

When he was campaigning for the May 2016 elections, President Duterte said he would ride a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea, sending a message to Filipinos that he would assert the country’s sovereignty against China.

Five years later, in May this year, the President said that was nothing but a campaign joke and sheer bravado.

These days, Filipino fishermen feel they’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The sea, they can navigate; they know it like the back of their hand, but they’re helpless against the devil.

They hope the next president will do more to assert the country’s rights over the disputed seas and stand up against China because their plight and the country’s sovereignty are no joke.

And Filipino fishermen aren’t laughing.

 

 

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

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