Pinoys able to fish freely, undisturbed

LABTIK - Eva Visperas - The Philippine Star
Pinoys able to fish freely, undisturbed
Filipino fishermen unload their catch in this photo taken on Oct. 15, 2016. Over the last few days, fishermen from Pangasinan have been able to fish in waters near Panatag Shoal without being chased away by Chinese ships. An international arbitral court ruled in July that Panatag was a common fishing ground open to fishermen from the Philippines, China and other countries.

INFANTA, Pangasinan, Philippines – Fisherman Gilbert Baoya came home yesterday from a fishing trip to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales province with a substantial catch.

“Happy days are here again,” he said in Filipino.

Baoya and seven companions were able to drop nets at Panatag Shoal “freely and undisturbed” by the Chinese, who used to chase them away from the area.

He said they attempted to fish in the area on Oct. 24 but were rudely turned away by Chinese coast guards.

They tried their luck the following day and got a pleasant surprise when no Chinese came to harass them or ask them to go away.

“We were really rejoicing,” he said. They continued fishing until Oct. 28 when they ran out of ice in their fish hold.

But Philippine and US officials said they are still verifying if the Chinese had indeed left the shoal. The Chinese took control of the shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy, which tried to arrest Chinese poachers on several boats.

A UN-backed international arbitral tribunal based in The Hague has declared Panatag Shoal a common fishing ground, and invalidated China’s massive claim in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea. The ruling was on a case filed by Manila.

On his return from China last Oct. 21, President Duterte said Filipinos would likely be “allowed” by the Chinese to fish again at Panatag Shoal, which is also called Bajo de Masinloc. 

Baoya, skipper of the fishing boat Ruvina, said he used to fish at the shoal three times a month in good weather until 2012. He said their income suffered greatly due to Chinese harassment.

Filipino fishermen, he said, were monitoring developments in the area and they learned recently that Duterte had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow Filipinos to fish in the area.

“Maybe that was the good fruit of their talk,” Baoya said.

He said they had a huge catch consisting of first class isdang bato, grouper, maya maya, tanigue and bakalaw, among others.

“We hope this will be the start of renewed good fishing of Filipinos in Panatag,” Baoya said.

He noted Chinese coast guard ships were still at Panatag “but they are kind now.”

He said while they were at the shoal two members of the Philippine Coast Guard rode on their boat to make video recording of the situation.

“Finally, we are free again to fish in Kalburo,” said Gilbert’s wife Wilma, using Panatag’s local name.

Not sure yet

Town officials, meanwhile, expressed elation at reports of Filipino fishermen now being allowed by the Chinese to drop nets at Panatag.

But barangay captain (village chief) Charlito Maniago told The STAR they could not yet confirm the development as most fishermen in the town fish only in payaw or fish enclosure as they were afraid to get near the shoal.

Maniago said those who go out to fish log out in their barangay and indicate their destination based on an agreement with local leaders and with the Philippine Coast Guard.

With the agreement, authorities would be aware of any fishing expedition so they can take appropriate measures in case of emergencies or inclement weather.

“I verified in the barangay hall through my administrator if there are fishermen who went out the past days going to Scarborough Shoal but based on record, there is none,” Maniago said.

“If they did not log out, that means they escaped,” he added. It takes about a week for fishermen to return from Panatag.

Those who logged out said they would fish only in the payaw area, which is about 20 nautical miles from Panatag Shoal, Maniago said.

Payaw is a square fish structure made of steel floating on the water with leaves at the bottom that attract fish, he said.

But he said there is a possibility that fishermen in a payaw would try to venture into Panatag Shoal if they get good news from other fishermen returning from the shoal.

“In our area, not all who logged out to fish went to Panatag Shoal, especially when situations became different when our fishermen started being harassed by Chinese coast guard then,” he said.

A fisherman could be said to have made it to Panatag Shoal if he had first class fish catch like grouper and maya-maya.

“So far, they only have tambakol, tuna, among others,” he said.

Barangay kagawad (councilman) Jowe Legaspi said a cousin, Joseph Daruca, joined a group of fishermen intent on getting to Panatag. But he was not sure if they reached the shoal.

“Based on information I got, they went there but I am not aware up to where or how close they reached,” he said. It takes about two hours by ordinary fishing boat to reach Panatag Shoal from the payaw.

“It’s far but it is big and wide like that of Dasol Bay,” he said.

Fishermen would visit Panatag Shoal from the third week of February to June, he said.

Legaspi used to have eight boats. He sold seven of them when he started losing money when the Chinese barred them from Panatag.

Still Verifying

In Manila, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine Coast Guard reported that Chinese ships have not been sighted at Panatag Shoal in the last three days, but he added the report has to be validated.

Lorenzana told the AP the Philippine Air Force plans to conduct aerial surveillance of the shoal to check the situation.

After seizing Panatag, the Chinese went on to construct seven man-made islands near Palawan.

Deputy US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters in Beijing yesterday that China’s withdrawal from Panatag Shoal, even if it were a product of bilateral talks with Duterte, “would be a positive development” welcomed by Washington.

He said it would be consistent with an international arbitration ruling in July that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. The ruling said that both Filipinos and Chinese can fish at the shoal, but China ignored it and its coast guard continued to block Filipino fishermen.

Blinken said that the US would continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea that challenge Beijing’s territorial claims at a time when countries in the region – including those that are not directly involved in the China-Philippine dispute – have signaled “increased demand” for American presence.

Duterte has attempted to repair relations with China, but he has also ruffled feathers with the Philippines’ longtime ally by threatening to scale down military ties with the US and hurling insults at President Barack Obama.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was still assessing reports that Chinese boats have left Panatag Shoal and Filipinos have resumed fishing there.

“We hope it is certainly not a temporary measure. We would like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision,” Toner told reporters in Washington.

After visiting Beijing last week, Duterte said without elaborating that Filipino fishermen “may” be able to return to Panatag after he discussed the territorial rift with Chinese leaders.

He said he insisted in his talks with Chinese leaders that the shoal belonged to the Philippines, but that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.

“If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area. We welcome this development,” Lorenzana said. “Our fishermen have not been fishing there since 2012. This will return to them their traditional source of livelihood.” – Jaime Laude, AP



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