Wake up call for whom?
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - June 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Before he left for Bangkok to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Leaders’ Summit last Friday, President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to raise before his fellow heads of states the June 9 “maritime accident” at Recto Bank as an urgent matter that must be addressed at their level.

The “maritime accident” involved 22 of our fishermen on board the wooden-hulled F/B Gem-Ver that was anchored at Recto Bank was rammed by a much bigger Chinese fishing vessel last June 9. Instead of aiding their victims, the captain and crew of the steel-hulled Chinese fishing vessel sailed away. Thankfully, another fishing vessel from Vietnam was nearby and saved the day for the Filipino fishermen.

The Recto Bank, well within the West Philippine Sea, is one of the islets located near the South China Sea where our country has overlapping territorial maritime claims with Beijing and other country claimants. Aside from the Philippines, our fellow ASEAN member states – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam – have also overlapping maritime claims over the South China Sea which Beijing claims under its own nine-dash line territorial waters.

While he was in Bangkok, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo announced about President Duterte’s acceptance of Beijing offer to conduct a joint investigation into the Recto Bank accident with a third neutral country as part of the probe team.

While we look forward to further developments on this matter, it brought to mind a long-standing proposal for a mechanism where both the Philippines and China and other claimant countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Part 9 of the UNCLOS calls for an agreement on “collective ocean governance of regional seas.”

Unfortunately, it never gained ground even at the level of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) during the Philippine hosting of the ASEAN in 2017, according to former ambassador Alberto Encomienda.

We had Encomienda and professor Austin Ong in the second portion of our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate. Encomienda and Ong discussed with us how this Recto Bank accident has brought out in the open the plight of Filipino “artisanal” fishermen going out to high seas as in the case of F/B Gem-Ver fishing crew.  

Encomienda is our foremost mind in maritime and ocean matters, having spent over a decade of his diplomatic career on legal studies of our Philippine claims at South China Sea. Prior to his retirement from the diplomatic service in 2009, he served as ambassador to Greece, Malaysia, and Singapore. He received his advance degrees on Ocean Law and Policy from London and Columbia University. He is also currently the executive director of Balik-Balangay. Ong, on the other hand, comes from the foreign policy analyst firm Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI) Research Center, is a graduate of the University of the Philippines, and a lecturer in De La Salle University and Ateneo De Manila University.

At that time, Encomienda recalled, our government felt that we need to internationalize the issue through the ASEAN. It was thought to be the best way to resolve the issue once and for all. Sadly, he rued, it never gained momentum in the same way the Philippine initiative to draw up a proposed Code of Conduct since 2000 remains a work in progress.

“Actually the context there was to point out that regulation is needed. Why? First, because a fish cannot determine borders; another way of saying it, a fish do not have a passport,” he pointed out.

“And even fishermen, they just are really going to where they can chase fish. In which case, if caught, they are poaching. That is why a mechanism, especially in the case of South China Sea, and Ocean Governance has to be established jointly and cooperatively as proposed by the UNCLOS,” he explained.

Encomienda prodded the Duterte administration to build upon the initiatives started by former president Fidel V. Ramos who was able to convince his former Vietnamese counterpart to enter into a Joint Oceanographic Marine Scientific Research in South China Sea as a confidence-building measure when both claimant countries to South China Sea agreed to include this under UNCLOS Part 9 way back then.

Also, during our conversations at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, we heard again the term of “artisanal” fishermen from Encomienda who through his advocacy for “good ocean governance” has always batted for the cause of marginalized Filipino fisher folks. Although at times he buckles at pronouncing the word “artisanal,” the 75-year-old Encomienda echoed the sincerest sympathy and desire to uplift the plight of our Filipino fishermen going out into the high seas without much means of support, especially around the common fishing grounds with their fellow fishermen from neighboring countries.

So we looked for the meaning of “artisanal” referred to by Encomienda. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines artisanal fishery as those involved in traditional fishing methods as opposed to commercial fishing companies. The FAO identified artisanal fishery as household fishermen using relatively small amount of capital and energy, relatively small fishing vessels (if any), making short fishing trips, close to shore, mainly for local consumption. 

In practice, the FAO definition varies between countries, for example from gleaning or a one-man canoe in poor developing countries, to the more than 20-meter trawlers, seiners, or long-liners in developed ones. The FAO considers artisanal fisheries can be subsistence or commercial fisheries, providing for local consumption or export. They are sometimes referred to as small-scale fisheries.

“This is not a sovereign or security issue as some of our government officials define it but always in the middle of these things are our Filipino fishermen,” Encomienda pointed out.

The ill-fated Gem-Ver is actually the mother ship while there were 19 smaller boats or bancas they use for line fishing. All their catch are then transferred to Gem-Ver and put in its ice storage. From the testimony of the Gem-Ver cook who was the only one awake and saw the incoming Chinese vessel, he woke up their ship captain who tried but failed to restart the engine of their fishing ship to avoid it. It was the passing Vietnam fishing ship that radioed for help to Philippine authorities.

Our Filipino fishermen’s meager resources limit them to fully explore our own fishing grounds and tap our country’s sovereign rights over maritime and aquatic resources extending all the way to our 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around our archipelagic country. 

Following the safe return of the 22 fishermen back to their fishing town in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, they received from Piñol 11 new fiberglass-made fishing bancas from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). It was reported though that the 30-footer fishing bancas are equipped with engines not fitted to run the boats. In addition, all 22 Gem-Ver fishermen will get financial assistance to tide them over while Gem-Ver is undergoing repair.

The Recto Bank incident happened and is now being called by Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel “Manny” Pinol as yet another “wake up” call.  Are our concerned government officials still sound asleep? 

A “wake up” call for whom?

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