Fighting for survival

The livelihood of Masinloc fishermen hangs in the balance as the Duterte government mulls its next step after Hague victory.

Panting as if in chorus, a group of men hoisted a banca off a truck on which 10 other boats were stacked.

Those motorized bancas — donated by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to the Masinloc fisher folk — can carry a catch of up to 300 kilos.

That’s just a fraction of the five-ton commercial fishing vessels these men rode off Zambales’ coastlines to the fishing grounds of Scarborough Shoal, where the bigger, more valuable mackerel (tanigi), yellow tail fusilier (dalagang bukid) and trevally breed.

Simula nung matigil kami, ngayon lang kami nakatikim ng biyaya sa gobyerno. (This is the first time we’ve received aid from the government since we were driven away from the shoal),” said Miguel Batana from the coastal town of Sta. Lucia who had Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) as his fishing ground for two decades until 2013.

It was that year when the Philippines haled China to an arbitration court in Hague following a standoff in the flashpoint area in 2012 that started when the Philippine Coast Guard tried to arrest Chinese poachers who had looted giant clams, endangered turtles and sharks.

Over a month has passed since the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued the July 12 ruling against China — declaring Beijing’s claim over much of South China Sea has no legal basis and that all its actions there were out of bounds — but Mr. Batana and his friends still fear going near Scarborough Shoal.

His last encounter with what he described were “armed Chinese” men aboard “rubber boats” were still vivid in his memory. “Nitong huli talagang may dalang armas. Hindi naman nagpaulan ng bala. Pero pinaligiran ng rubber boats ang bangka namin. (They were armed. We weren’t shot at, but they surrounded and intimidated us aboard their rubber boats,” the 48-year old Filipino fisherman said in an Aug. 2 interview.

Given their size and capacity, the boats from BFAR are good just for municipal waters that stretch up to 15 kilometers from the coastline. Scarborough Shoal lies 124 nautical miles (199.5 kilometers) off Zambales, according to the Philippine Coast Guard.

That meant a smaller catch for Mr. Batana whose earnings now shrank to less than P1,000 a day from P5,000 before. “It’s better than nothing,” the father of three said in Filipino.

The boats too would allow another beneficiary, Biany Mula, who used to sail commercial fishing vessels, to return to the seas but this time staying close to the shore with the artisanal fishermen.

“I’ve been driving only tricycles since 2013,” he said, referring to his means of living after the commercial fishing operator who hired him and Mr. Batana ended their Scarborough trips given the maritime dispute.

The BFAR lists 3,330 Masinloc fishermen registered with it, about “20-30%” of them made long distance trips out to Scarborough Shoal, Provincial Fisheries Coordinator Neil D. Encinares said in an Aug. 11 interview. The agency, which has the mandate to partly ensure food security through laws and policies governing the use and conservation of the country’s fishery resources, distributed 65 boats to Masinloc municipality this month.

But the BFAR can’t govern municipal waters, which are instead under the local government’s ambit.

The municipal mayor’s office was crowded with fisher folk, farmers and community workers seeking a few minutes with Masinloc Mayor Arsenia Lim.

She was barely two months old in her post when the July 12 historical Hague ruling was handed down and yet her constituencies wanted to know how soon they can return to Scarborough Shoal without being sprayed with water cannons.

Mahirap na habang may negotiation, pupunta kami doon na para kaming sutil. Magugulo pa usapan. (We don’t want to appear strubborn, going there and compromising negotiations),” Ms. Lim said in an Aug. 2 interview at her office.

She was referring to the Duterte government’s decision to take the diplomatic route in resolving the maritime dispute with Beijing. “We will follow the President’s directive. Bilang ina ng Masinloc, ayokong may anak na masasaktan. Hahanap kami ng hanapbuhay. (As Masinloc’s mother, I don’t want my children hurt. I will find livelihood for them.),” Ms. Lim said.

But the new Masinloc mayor, whose May 9 election win ended what she said was a three-decade rule by the same clan, inherited headaches associated with managing the municipal waters.

Fish cages have been owned by just five operators since the municipality began issuing permits in 1997. In 2002, Masinloc’s policymaking municipal council issued a moratorium on fish cage applications, further limiting the number of operators.

“There’s a moratorium [still in place]. No new operators,” said Olivia E. Gregorio, environmental management specialist at the Masinloc municipal office, adding that the same lot get to renew their permit annually after securing clearance from the Environment department.

Now, Ms. Lim said she plans a review of the guidelines in issuing permits. “When I took over, the fish cages were owned by the rich and the shoreline could no longer accommodate new ones, thus sidelining our smaller fishermen,” the mayor said in Filipino.

Also, rogue fishing vessels from as far as Nasugbu in Batangas and in Cavite, she said, had been poaching from the payao built supposedly for Masinloc artisanal fishermen — the bandits’ dynamite fishing methods killing what’s left for the real owners.

Republic Act No. (RA) 8550, or the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 and amended by RA 10654, defines payao as “a fish aggregating device consisting of a floating raft anchored by a weighted line with suspended materials such as palm fronds to attract pelagic and schooling species common in deep waters.”

“The payao is the best option for now for those vessels that cannot go to Scarborough. It attracts the yellow fin, tuna and other bigger species like salmon,” the municipal mayor said. “But our Masinloc fishermen are up against an armed syndicate.”

It’s a menacing problem that Ms. Lim has written a letter directly addressed to President Rodrigo R. Duterte asking the Chief Executive “to help our fishermen in any way you may.”

“As someone new in the field of politics and with the situation that I and my town people are faced with in regard to our ongoing dispute in territory particularly in Bajo de Masinloc, I am thankful and yet a little concerned of the decision that was handed down by the UN Arbitral Tribunal on July 12, 2016,” read the mayor’s draft letter dated Aug. 1 and seen by BusinessWorld.

In her letter to the President, Ms. Lim cited dynamite fishing that destroys the payao, theft at fish cages and the use of superlight by foreign fishermen as “challenges” that “make fishing even more difficult” for her constituents.

“I appeal for protection of our fishermen both from local and foreign ones who are into illegal activities. I strongly believe that some of the difficulties do not only arise from the bullying of the China government but also from our own ranks,” the letter read.

With neither municipal waters nor the fishing grounds of Scarborough Shoal entirely safe for them and without guarantee there will be enough food on their tables everyday, the fishermen of Masinloc still look to Mr. Duterte for long-term solutions and watch how he will deal with the Chinese in bilateral talks that are about to unfold.

Nitong huli talagang may dalang armas. Hindi naman nagpaulan ng bala. Pero pinaligiran ng rubber boats ang bangka namin. (They were armed. We weren’t shot at, but they surrounded and intimidated us aboard their rubber boats,” Miguel Batana said as he described an encounter with “armed Chinese” men aboard rubber boats.

Sixty-three-year-old Fred Manzano earnestly remembers how he and his fellow fishermen would hop onto Vietnamese boats those nights they navigated the waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground whose resources he said were shared with their peers from another part of Asia.

Sailing off the coast of Masinloc to Scarborough Shoal would take them 18 hours when the waves were kind, and with their boats moored there for three nights, a drink freely offered by the Vietnamese fishermen was a relief.

“The Vietnamese would wave at us gesturing like ‘come.’ I’d jump onto their boat and there they’d give us hot coffee or tea. I really like their coffee,” Mr. Manzano, whose last trip to Scarborough was three years ago, said in Filipino.

“We understood each other only by hand signals,” he recounted, adding that the foreign-speaking strangers had become his “friends.”

The accounts of fishermen from this coastal community — which while tiny could play a big role in an entire nation’s fight for traditional fishing rights in the resource-rich area — could be proof that Scarborough Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc to the Philippines, is common fishing ground for Filipinos and Vietnamese alike as well as for the Chinese and other nationalities.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, in its landmark July 12 decision, did not rule on sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal but said that China’s blocking of access to it since 2012 is illegal.

The arbitration court hammered home its finding that the “Scarborough Shoal has traditionally been used as a fishing ground by fishermen from different states” in a statement that followed the Hague ruling.

“Although the Tribunal emphasized that it was not deciding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, it found that China had violated its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fishermen by halting access to the Shoal after May 2012,” read the Hague court statement released also on July 12.

“The Tribunal noted, however, that it would reach the same conclusion with respect to the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen if the Philippines were to prevent fishing by Chinese nationals at Scarborough Shoal.”

Since which party owns it was an issue not settled, Scarborough Shoal is low-hanging fruit that could provide the take-off point for bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing, two members of the delegation that fought the Philippine case at the Hague said.

It’s neutral ground for discussions that would not be tantamount to giving up gains from the arbitration — nor would it mean abandoning the legal track which was something critics of bilateral talks earlier feared given mixed signals from the Duterte administration on its China policy.

“We have to sit down with China and decide the ground rules on fishing in a common area — what’s the allowable catch for each country, what are the protocols so they would not quarrel because we have to have sustained fishing there… We must agree on how many tons a year each country can take. That shoal cannot satisfy everybody,” Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio told BusinessWorld in an interview on Aug. 11.

Albert F. Del Rosario, under whose term as Foreign Affairs secretary the Philippines sought arbitration on its maritime dispute with a regional power and scored a historical victory, said: “It’s a good idea especially as both China and the Philippines are allowed to fish there.”

“There should be a modus vivendi that could be established. That could be a beginning,” he said.

“At the end of the day, you’re looking for a finality in terms of adhering to what has been passed by the award.”

The Philippines has not gone that far yet. But at the conclusion of his visit to Hong Kong last weekend, former President Fidel V. Ramos — whom President Rodrigo R. Duterte sent as personal envoy — hinted that Manila and Beijing could sit down for “formal” talks soon.

In what’s viewed as symbolic confidence-building rather than a substantial gesture, Mr. Ramos said his meeting with Fu Ying — chairperson of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress and herself China’s former ambassador to the Philippines — covered fishing rights.

“Cooperation” — mentioned in the joint statement issued by the two from Hong Kong and dated Aug. 11 — is emerging as the option for a country that cannot hope to match China’s military and economic prowess.

The Philippine Coast Guard stationed at Masinloc confirmed at least nine reported incidents between 2012 and August 2016 of Philippine fishing vessels being rammed by Chinese boats in an attempt to drive them away from Scarborough Shoal.

Two coast guards interviewed by BusinessWorld believe sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal — which in the 1990s was used by the US as a shooting range given its proximity to the naval base in Subic — lies with the Philippines, as it is located 124 nautical miles off Masinloc’s shoreline and within the country’s 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone.

But the Hague ruling read in part: “In the Tribunal’s view, Scarborough Shoal is a ‘rock’ for purposes of Article 121 (3).”

Geographic features are crucial in determining maritime zones and exploitation rights, and Article 121 (3) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — which the Hague court cited — provides that “[r]ocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

Fishermen from Masinloc town, who fish at the Scarborough Shoal, and activists carry a wooden fishing boat during a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Manila on July 12, 2016, ahead of a UN tribunal ruling on the legality of China’s claims to an area of the South China sea contested by the Philippines. AFP

International law expert Gilbert Andres, counsel for Masinloc fisherfolk who are asking the United Nations to step in and urge China to respect their right to food, said China only has “de facto control over Scarborough Shoal and that force can never be a means of acquisition of territory.”

Still, the Philippine Coast Guard discourages the fishermen from going beyond 90 nautical miles off Zambales coastline.

Pinapakiusapan po namin na hwag muna silang pumunta (We’re urging them not to go to Scarborough Shoal),” Masinloc Coast Guard Sub-Station (CGSS) Commander Franklin M. Catiggay said in an interview on Aug. 2, adding that his team did not know how much restraint Chinese coast guard will show if Filipino fishermen resist.

In late July, after the Hague court handed down its ruling, the CGSS in Zambales was ordered by Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Rear Admiral William M. Melad to step up monitoring of poachers.

Several other proposals have been offered in dealing with the dispute but the resounding theme is cooperation: a joint fishing agreement with China or declaring some disputed areas as a marine eco park.

But the solution should be one that lasts even after Mr. Duterte ends his six-year term in June 2022, especially for a country that has seen its leaders change policy towards China.

Jose T. Almonte, former security adviser to Mr. Ramos, said China’s ambitions are long-term — unfolding in the next 100 years — while its Presidents serve for up 10 years, consisting of two five-year terms.

“If you look at South China Sea and look at China’s core interest, we cannot expect to resolve this in a few years. You cannot,” Mr. Almonte said in an Aug. 10 interview at his office.