Fishermen hope to be ‘freely, totally’ allowed in Panatag

Eva Visperas - The Philippine Star
Fishermen hope to be âfreely, totallyâ allowed in Panatag
File photo provided by Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members, wearing black caps and orange life vests, approach Filipino fishermen as they confront them off Scarborough Shoal at South China Sea in northwestern Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, Filipino fishermen may be able to return to the China-held Scarborough Shoal in a few days after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders during his trip to Beijing this past week.
Renato Etac via AP, File

INFANTA, Pangasinan, Philippines – Raring to go back to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal without the Chinese Coast Guard shooing them away, fisherfolk from this province are hoping President Duterte’s pronouncement that Filipinos could soon fish again in the disputed waters is for real.

Charlito Maniago, barangay captain of Cato village in Infanta town, said the residents who mostly subsist on fishing are “happy but not yet contented” with the President’s announcement.

Maniago related to The STAR yesterday that fishermen in his village are particularly concerned about being allowed “freely and totally” in Panatag Shoal, also called Bajo de Masinloc, which is guarded by the Chinese Coast Guard.

“Actually we are not yet contented because there is still limit, as we cannot go inside the lagoon,” he said, citing the last time villagers went to Panatag was last August or September.

No one had gone back after that, he said, especially at the height of Typhoons Karen and Lawin.

Maniago said it would be useless if the fishermen were not allowed inside the shoal, where fish abounds.

“It would be the same thing if we are only outside Panatag Shoal,” he stressed.

Maniago said fishermen in his village used to get bountiful catch in Panatag Shoal, until the Chinese Coast Guard started blocking access.

“The entire barangay would feast with their catch then,” he related. “But for the past several years, when they were no longer allowed there, life was never the same again.”

According to Maniago, village fishermen now content themselves with their catch of tambakol (tuna mackerel), unlike in the past when they got gourmet fish like lapu-lapu (giant grouper), maya-maya (snapper) and big danggit (sun-dried, salted rabbitfish).

To Cato barangay councilor Jowe Legaspi, Duterte’s announcement that Filipino fishermen can go fishing again in Panatag Shoal was “only news.”

“It is not yet confirmed, just a possibility,” Legaspi said. “It was only he (Duterte) who said it. What about the Chinese government?”  

Legaspi used to have eight motorized fishing bancas, but he sold seven of them when the Chinese Coast Guard started chasing Filipino fishermen away from the area in 2012.

“We used to catch tons of fish in Panatag Shoal,” he said, lamenting that the fishermen’s income and catch suffered with the territorial dispute.

Legaspi then put up a small stall in the public market, but this did not prosper. His wife was forced to work in Hong Kong, leaving their seven children under his care.

Legaspi said some groups of fishermen went to the shoal about two weeks ago, but the Chinese Coast Guard sent them away.  

“They were like cats and dogs playing hide and seek,” he said.  

Oscar Tabat Sr., a 55-year-old fisherman from Sta. Cruz, Zambales, said he was overjoyed by Duterte’s news, declared during the President’s visit in typhoon-beaten Tuguegarao, Cagayan last Sunday.

“That’s great; I hope that’s true,” he said, adding he and his fellow fishermen in the village would now plan their next fishing journey at Panatag.   

Tabat said his fishing pals used to earn from P4,000 to P5,000 in just a few days of fishing in Panatag. 

But the harassment they get from the Chinese at the shoal leaves them no recourse but to fish in municipal waters, going out at dawn and returning home by noon.

Tabat said he last fished in Panatag last July but was shooed away by Chinese fishermen. 

He said the Chinese fishermen didn’t physically harm them, but only motioned them to stay away, saying, “Go, go, go.”

Tabat said his elder brother was not so lucky, as their group was hit by water cannon by the Chinese Coast Guard. 

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