Filipinos hope for sea change to fish again in China-blocked waters

Filipinos hope for sea change to fish again in China-blocked waters
The Scarborough Shoal is inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but Filipino fishermen can no longer access it as the atoll has been under Chinese control since 2012. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 25 May 2023

Filipinos hope for sea change to fish again in China-blocked waters

Filipinos hope for sea change to fish again in China-blocked waters
  • Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal under Chinese control since 2012
  • Area has some of the best fishing in the disputed South China Sea

MANILA: The past 10 years have not been easy for Vicente Berosil and other fishermen in Masinloc, since their livelihoods disappeared when Chinese ships suddenly entered the waters they had known for generations as their own.

Berosil’s home, a small coastal municipality in Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, has in its territorial jurisdiction waters that have been known to have some of the best fishing in the region. The richest of them is Scarborough Shoal inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

But Philippine fishermen can no longer access it.

Claimed by China as its ancestral territory since the 13th century, Scarborough has been part of the growing dispute Beijing has with Manila and the governments of other countries in the region over the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s most resourceful and heavily trafficked waterways.

Scarborough Shoal is the sea’s largest atoll and has been under Chinese control since 2012. This is when a Filipino warship attempted to arrest those aboard Chinese boats allegedly poaching in Scarborough and was blocked by Chinese marine surveillance vessels.

The Chinese have cordoned off the entrance of the shoal and Philippine boats can no longer access it.

“They (Chinese) will shoo you away, they will block you with their vessels, rubber boats,” Berosil, 49, told Arab News. “It’s scary, our small boats are no match (for) them.”

His colleague, Jerry Edradan, 50, started to fish for a living when he was 15 and for nearly three decades the sea provided him with a decent living. This was until 2012, when the region lost its main source of income.

“Since China entered the scene, we have been really struggling. We have barely enough to buy rice, we have to eke out money every day,” Edradan said. “It wasn’t like that before. Life used to be good ... We always had a good catch and Scarborough was really open.”

The Philippines has filed numerous diplomatic protests and in 2016 won a larger case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled that Chinese activities within the 200-nautical-mile Philippine exclusive economic zone infringed on Manila’s sovereign rights. But China dismissed the ruling and its presence in the area continues to increase.

For the fishermen, hope for a reversal of this situation has come in the form of a growing American military presence — under a decades-long security alliance that obliges the Philippines and US to defend each other’s territory in case of external attack.

In February, the Philippines allowed US troops to increase their footprint in the country and gave them access to new bases, including in the South China Sea.

In May, Manila’s envoy to Washington announced that joint Philippine-US maritime patrols could begin later this year.

Meanwhile, the struggle continues for the area’s Filipino fishing community.

Rolando Fuentes, 48, started to drive a tricycle for additional income because he can no longer earn enough from fishing to send his children to school.

He has not dared to fish near the shoal since the Chinese water-cannoned his boat, but draws some sense of safety from America’s presence.

“I feel like we now have an ally and hopefully soon we can fish again at Scarborough,” he said.

“I hope that we can get it back because that’s where I earned the living to raise my family. For all the fishermen here, that’s really their source of living — for their family, their children.”

But while Fuentes wants the Chinese navy out, he would not mind sharing the abundant fishing with Chinese fishermen if the rules are fair.

“We are willing to share the fish as long as they don’t prevent us from entering the area,” he told Arab News. “We can share and see who can catch more fish.”

Julius Pacabis, 43, who claims he has also experienced intimidation by Chinese coastguard ships when he neared the shoal, also hopes Filipino fishermen can return some day.

Like Fuentes, he does not mind competitors as long as there is no blocking of anyone. But he is wary of an escalation in tension.

“I just hope that everything will be peaceful because we will be the ones who will suffer the most if there is conflict,” he said.

“All I’m wishing for is that things will go back (the) way it was before.”