Filipino fishers are called upon to sacrifice during PH-US Balikatan

Balikatan military exercises —YOUTUBE.COM VIDEOGRAB

Fishers in San Antonio, Zambales, may have to sacrifice days’ worth of catch as the Coast Guard enforces a three-day “no-sail zone policy” in the municipal waters during next week’s war games between Philippine and US troops, according to security analyst Chester Cabalza. 

The policy, which bans fishing within the municipal waters on May 6-9, has drawn protests from fish vendors who said this would impact on the livelihood of fishing communities. 

The monthlong Balikatan annual exercise kicks off on Monday, May 6. 

This year’s drill promises to be the biggest so far, with 16,000 soldiers from the Philippines and the United States taking part in training operations on maritime security, sensing and targeting, air and missile defense and dynamic missile strikes.

The navies of the Philippines, United States, and France are also conducting a multilateral maritime exercise in the West Philippine Sea that will run up to May 10. 

“All sectors must take their roles responsibly. The Balikatan exercise is also for the local fishermen. In a reciprocal way, they must observe the temporary fishing ban while the military exercise is ongoing on their shores,” Cabalza told via Messenger on Saturday. 

American and Filipino soldiers in last year’s war games —BULLIT MARQUEZ/VERA FILES.ORG

Cabalza, who is president and founder of the International Development and Security Cooperation, said the annual Balikatan exercise is vital for Filipino and American forces “to rehearse and simulate naval scenarios at sea.”

“Hence, fishers should also understand the drill for a long-term solution to their source of living,” he said. 

Fish vendors in San Antonio’s Barangay San Miguel earlier said they stood to lose P1,500 to P2,000 in potential income each day under the no-sail policy. They appealed for financial or food assistance from the government. 

The challenge is striking a balance between ensuring long-term maritime security for the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea and protecting the livelihood of fishers. 

Cabalza said the current “whole-of-society approach” should prompt the government, military and sectoral groups, including the fishing communities, to help one another in achieving the national goal of “protecting our maritime domain and fishing ground.”

“What the Armed Forces of the Philippines is doing is to achieve national security by serving Filipino fishers’ food security,” he said. “If the Navy and Air Force can secure major maritime and aerial trade routes, including the contested shoals in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone), the local fishers will reap more bounties in their safe waters.” 

Up to 10k tons of fish

At the third national conference on investigative journalism conducted by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) last Tuesday, Leonardo Cuaresma said he longed for the day when fishers like himself could cast their net in Scarborough Shoal in Zambales without being chased away by Chinese Coast Guard ships.

“From the ‘70s to the millennium, we would catch as many as 7,000 to 10,000 tons in three days of fishing,” Cuaresma said during the session on geopolitics at the Novotel Hotel in Quezon City, where he shared the stage with retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio and author Marites Vitug.

“If we had a good catch, the Chinese would get to pick the best. The leftovers we would bring home. That’s how harsh the Chinese are,” he said. 

China occupied Scarborough, which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and is also known as Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc, in 2012. As a result, Filipino fishers could haul in only 2,000 tons of fish from the area. They had worse days when they sailed home empty-handed, said Cuaresma, a leader of fishers in Masinloc, Zambales.   

They experienced the worst when Chinese Coast Guard or militia vessels would chase them away from the rich fishing area with a water cannon, Cuaresma said. “It’s as if they owned it and we were just sneaky foreigners trying to steal marine resources.” 

Cuaresma said he and other fishers defied then President Rodrigo Duterte’s warning against sailing to Scarborough because fishing is their only means of livelihood. 

Sharp contrast

Filipino fishers are seeing a ray of hope in President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s tough stance against China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea, which sharply contrasts with Duterte’s policy of appeasement toward Beijing.  

“While the number of Chinese Coast Guard ships and militia ships is growing, we’re seeing the support of the administration, unlike the previous one who was selling us out of our own fishing grounds,” Cuaresma said. 

Carpio, who spoke ahead of Vitug and Cuaresma at the PCIJ conference, said Duterte’s policy clearing the way for Chinese fishing in the West Philippine Sea has resulted in lower fish catch for Filipinos. 

“We’re actually importing galunggong (round scad) from China, and the Chinese got that galunggong in our exclusive economic zone,” he said, adding:

“From the time Duterte came into office and until the time he left office, the price of galunggong doubled. Why? Duterte allowed the Chinese to fish in the West Philippine Sea. They have the largest fishing fleet in the world.”  

Carpio said there would be no sea dispute if Beijing only recognized Manila’s exclusive economic zone. 

Ground rules

In an interview with Christian Esguerra on the podcast “Facts First” late in April, Carpio said the Philippines could file a case with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to seek ground rules on fishing in Scarborough Shoal.

In its 2016 ruling invalidating China’s sweeping claim to the South China Sea, the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague said Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing ground of the Philippines, China and Vietnam. 

“China is the only one fishing here, and they chase us away,” Carpio said. “We will ask the tribunal to set the guidelines. How many tons of fish can China, the Philippines, and Vietnam catch? When is the fishing season?”

He said Vietnam can file the case jointly with the Philippines. 

If the international tribunal rules in favor of the Philippines, Carpio said, the shoal will continue as a traditional fishing ground for the three countries. 

“According to the international tribunal, this country has sovereignty over this island, but the other countries have fishing rights in the territorial sea of that island,’’ Carpio said.

Read more: Gov’t urged: Defend, assert territorial integrity in West Philippine Sea

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.