“The fishermen are asking the President that Recto Bank, which is their traditional fishing ground, should be their exclusive fishing grounds and they want help in securing the area,” Piñol said at a briefing in a coastal town in Occidental Mindoro where the fishermen live.
Fishermen want Recto Bank exclusive for Pinoys
Louise Maureen Simeon (The Philippine Star) - June 20, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The 22 fishermen left adrift at sea for hours after their boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel near Recto Bank last June 9 are urging President Duterte to declare the area their exclusive fishing ground, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said yesterday.

“The fishermen are asking the President that Recto Bank, which is their traditional fishing ground, should be their exclusive fishing grounds and they want help in securing the area,” Piñol said at a briefing in a coastal town in Occidental Mindoro where the fishermen live.

In their meeting with Piñol, the fishermen also denounced the Chinese for abandoning them after their boat capsized.

“They also want to make representations with the Chinese government so the crew would be held accountable criminally because of that act of abandoning them,” he added.

The fishermen claimed that foreign vessels have been fishing in Recto Bank since 2014. Recto Bank is 85 nautical miles from Palawan and is within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In 2016, the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague had awarded the Philippines sovereign rights over Recto (Reed) Bank as well as Panganiban (Mischief) Reef off Palawan and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

The fishermen, according to Piñol, are also demanding that an investigation be made to determine if the collision was intentional or not.

“But what is clear is that there is no justification for the Chinese vessel to leave the crew members. This is best resolved through a maritime inquiry,” he said.

The agriculture chief denied insinuations the administration is siding with China’s claim that what happened in Recto Bank is just a “maritime traffic accident.”

“Let us not belittle this incident. At the same time, there is no reason for us to overblow this incident to the point of invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said, referring to the MDT with the United States.

Meanwhile, Piñol has committed to extend assistance to the fishermen through the Agricultural Credit Policy Council which will release P25,000 to each of the 22 fishermen under the Survival Response Loan Program.

Piñol said the loan assistance is payable in three years with no collateral and no interest.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has given the fishermen 11 30-foot fiberglass boats with complete accessories, including engine and nets.

Each boat will be shared by two fishermen to ensure a source of income while the F/B Gem-Vir 1 (Gem-Ver) is in dry dock.

The fishermen thanked the government yesterday after receiving the boats.

Piñol said they would also tap the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) for some additional funding.

He said the funding will not be limited to assisting the 22 Mindoro fishermen but will also be used to buy ice-making machines and cold storage for all the fishing communities nationwide.

“I talked to president Alfredo Lim of Pagcor. I wrote to their board and asked for funding for more fishermen,” Piñol said.

The Recto Bank incident has reportedly cost the fishermen and the boat owners over P2 million. It included about three metric tons of fish worth P1 million, P500,000 in capital and P700,000 for the fishing boat.

“This should be an awakening incident for us to change and modernize our sector by offering them new, leveled-up and modernized fishing boats made of steel,” Piñol said. Most of the fishing boats in the country are made of wood.

No legal action yet

As officials try to manage repercussions of the incident, the government is setting aside for now the option of taking legal action against the crew of the Chinese vessel involved, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said yesterday.

He told The STAR that while legal action may be pursued against the Chinese under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for their sinking of a Filipino fishing boat and failing to rescue its 22 crew, the executive department considers such option still premature.

“Under the UNCLOS and international maritime laws, cases may be pursued against the Chinese. But resort to legal action, although available, is not contemplated at this time,” he said.

He said it was agreed at a Palace meeting on the issue last Monday that a thorough investigation be conducted first before any possible legal action is undertaken.

Guevarra also bared the government is eyeing a possible joint investigation with the Chinese government on the incident, despite the filing of diplomatic protest by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“The agreement during the special Cabinet cluster meeting was to conduct a proper marine inquiry – preferably a joint one with China – establish the true facts, allocate responsibility for restitution and adopt measures to avoid similar incidents in the future,” he said.

Guevarra made the statement after Sen. Richard Gordon called on the government to file an extradition case before the International Maritime Organization (IMO) against China over the reported hit-and-run incident.

The justice chief explained that for now, the government will extend all necessary assistance to the fishermen that figured in what President Duterte dismissed as a “little maritime accident.”

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), for its part, said it would be taking steps to improve its communication with the Chinese Coast Guard.

PCG spokesman Capt. Armand Balilo said improving the communication line with their counterpart could help prevent a similar incident in the future.

“We will make efforts to improve our communication line with the Chinese Coast Guard,” he said at a forum in Quezon City.

Balilo also suggested the use of live communications among fishing vessels to prevent collision and other maritime accidents.

“If there’s live communications, then the movement of fishing vessels will be calibrated,” the PCG official explained. The PCG is still wrapping up its probe on the incident.

‘Incredible’

Meanwhile, former foreign affairs chief Albert del Rosario described as “incredible” the war scenario raised by the administration if the country stands up to Chinese bullying at sea.

“While we are cognizant of the imperative not to trigger an armed conflict, we believe that adherence to the rule of law is a profoundly pacifist way that we all should follow,” Del Rosario said in a statement.

“Specifically, to accept that war is the only alternative to setting aside the arbitral decision is remarkably incredible and cannot be taken seriously in this modern world,” he said.

Del Rosario was part of the legal team that won the Philippine case in 2016 against China’s massive claim in the South China Sea before an international tribunal.

Citing his firsthand experience as foreign affairs chief under the second Aquino administration, Del Rosario said China’s word is “unreliable” and Beijing is “not to be trusted.”

“When China makes a declaration, you can almost be sure that it is not consistent with what is happening on the ground,” he said.

Years ago, China’s highest official promised to his US counterpart that there would be no militarization of the South China Sea, but Del Rosario said “precisely the opposite was taking place.”

“On Scarborough (Panatag), an agreement in 2012 was brokered by the US regarding the withdrawal of ships by a certain time in order to break an impasse. We withdrew while China did not,” Del Rosario added. – Edu Punay, Ding Cervantes, Elizabeth Marcelo, Janvic Mateo, Pia Lee-Brago

FILIPINO FISHERMEN IN RECTO BANK
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