PUERTO PRINCESA CITY – Authorities in the western part of the Philippines where a group of islets, reefs, cays, banks, shoals and rocky outcrops are the subject of a lingering dispute with neighboring countries including China, Vietnam and Malaysia, are constantly dealing with the problem of poaching.
The poaching, particularly in the western island province of Palawan, is viewed to have been encouraged by the lack of universally agreed upon and accepted territorial boundaries in the South China Sea.
Palawan, known as the last frontier of the Philippines, is just north of Malaysia, east of Vietnam, and south of China.
"The territorial dispute is definitely part of the issue (of poaching). If you look at it, if we are fishing there, we are the poachers from the point of view of Malaysia, Vietnam and China. If they go there to fish, we also accuse them of poaching. But we are not preventing our fishermen there because we say, it is within our claim.
Likewise, they are also not preventing theirs. So, it is all conflicting," Philippine Navy officer in the area Capt. Giovanni Carlo Bacordo told Kyodo News.
"I hope the day will come that it will be resolved, hopefully by the United Nations, as to who owns what and what are the clear boundaries. Then, definitely, these incidents of poaching will significantly decrease," he said.
John Francisco Pontillas of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff said foreign fishermen are drawn to the waters of Palawan because of its rich marine resources, especially sea turtles which "command a high price in the international market."
A marine specialist at PCSDS, the agency that implements the government's wildlife protection policy, Pontillas said marine species "tend to thrive" in the area because the connection of the South China Sea and Sulu Sea allows a "dynamic exchange of hydrology there."
"For the population, we don't have data yet. But for sure, there are a lot of turtles on that side because the country's conservation program for marine turtles is situated near that area. These areas are known migratory paths of marine turtles," said Glenda Cadigal, Pontillas' colleague at the PCSDS.
The Philippines started its marine turtle conservation project in 1979.
Poachers apprehended by Philippine authorities in recent years have yielded not just fish harvests but also sea turtles, which the PCSDS regards as alarming because of their being critically endangered.
The most common catch includes the green sea turtles, which are an endangered species under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and hawksbill turtles, which are considered critically endangered.
"It is believed to have an aphrodisiac component," PCSDS legal officer Adelina Villena said of the sea turtles' value to poachers.
Poachers also harvest endangered shells like giant top shell snails, white lip oysters and helmet shells, which are reportedly sold to makers of decorative items.
According to Villena, there have been close to 100 poaching incidents recorded by Philippine authorities since 1996, involving nationals from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China.
"The largest group, so far, are the Chinese because they come from different places. About 60 percent of foreign nationals poaching in Philippine waters are Chinese," Villena said.
Villena said the biggest group of Chinese come from China's Hainan Province and head to Balabac town at the southern tip of Palawan and to the western side of the Spratly Islands.
She recalled that the biggest group of Chinese fishermen apprehended by Philippine authorities consisted of 175 individuals aboard six boats in 2002, who were caught fishing in the protected area of Tubataha Reef.
Until last year, Philippine authorities continued to apprehend Chinese poachers, six of whom, in fact, are still undergoing court trial for the crime, while a few others have managed to jump bail.
Twelve Vietnamese nationals are also presently held by the authorities after they were charged with poaching and collecting 43 marine turtles and several threatened shells in Balabac last April.
"They were aware that they were fishing already in Philippine waters. The interpreter said they were brought to the Philippine waters by bad weather. And when they were already inside the Philippines, they saw lots of fish so they were tempted to fish," Villena said of the latest incident, adding that their vessels were actually equipped with GPS systems.
Last year, more than 100 Vietnamese poachers were apprehended by Philippine authorities in Balabac, but they were pardoned by the government.
"That was a sad case. They were meted with penalty and our president gave them a pardon. That is not normal for us. But sad to say, the president has that power to extend or grant pardon," Villena said.
"When it comes to foreign nationals, we always have to deal with diplomatic strategies, which, we, as implementers of the law, don't understand. So, we are frustrated," Villena added.
Aside from strictly enforcing the present penalties on illegal fishing and the collection of endangered species, Villena hopes that the government will actually institute stricter ones.
Bacardo, for his part, urges local residents not to be in cahoots with foreign buyers of sea turtles and shells who take advantage of their poverty.
"We should have an enhanced action on these poachers. There should be participation of locals, fishermen, the Navy, and the local government," coast guard area commander Enrico Evangelista said.
A regional agreement to discourage poaching is also welcome to the PCSDS.
"Probably, the countries, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could enforce a more intensive campaign for their nationals not to come to the Philippines, and also, us, not to go to the territory of other countries," Pontillas said.
Unlike Bacardo, Evangelista and the PCSDS officers are pessimistic about the curbing of poaching even if the territorial dispute is resolved, noting that several cases in Balabac clearly show "they poach even in areas with defined boundaries."
"There's always the risk of foreign fishermen coming here because of proximity and access," Cadigal admits. "So we'll continue conducting regular coastal assessment and monitoring."