MANILA – The Philippine National Police (PNP) on Thursday said it is currently in the process of checking the nationality of the 11 fishermen allegedly caught poaching off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands on Wednesday.
In a press conference, Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas, chief of the PNP Maritime Group said, ''The term we are using is 'foreign crew,' until such time that we are able to identify their names and nationality."
Vargas said the PNP is being careful not to hastily tag the arrested fisherman as Chinese because of past experiences.
''Last week, we apprehended a small boat with six crew bearing the flag of a country. [We] found out, when we took their names, that they came from different countries – three countries,'' he said.
Vargas said the alleged poachers, who were caught with about 350 turtles inside their vessel, are now in custody of the PNP Maritime Group – Special Boat Unit in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
He said the vessel encountered a problem, making it easier for maritime policemen to apprehend it near the Philippine island of Palawan.
The seized vessel was brought to Liminancong port. From there, the fishermen were brought to Puerto Princesa on board a bus for the filing of appropriate charges.
Aside from the suspected Chinese boat, a Philippine boat with crew was also seized, and found to have 70 turtles on board.
Several species of sea turtles are protected under Philippine law.
The arrest drew the ire of Beijing, which claims almost the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
China has urged the Philippines to release the fishermen and the vessel, saying the apprehension was made in West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) which is part of its territory.
Half Moon Shoal is within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone and near to Second Thomas Shoal, where a small Philippines garrison is based much to China's displeasure.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) defended the arrest, saying the alleged poaching activity was committed on Philippine waters.
"The seizing of the Chinese fishing boat, carrying large numbers of endangered species, and the apprehension of its crew by the Philippine National Police Maritime Group Special Boat Unit were undertaken as actions to enforce maritime laws and to uphold Philippine sovereign rights over its EEZ," the DFA said in a statement.
China's official Xinhua news agency said contact had been lost with 11 fishermen after they were intercepted by "armed men" in waters not far from the Philippines.
They were on board the fishing boat Qiongqionghai 09063, which was intercepted by an unidentified armed vessel at about 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) in waters off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands, Xinhua said, citing a fishing association in Qionghai on China's southern island province of Hainan.
The shoal is some 100 km (60 miles) from the Philippines' Palawan island.
"Several armed men forced themselves onto the boat and fired four or five shots in the air. They then took control of the boat," Xinhua said.
A second fishing boat escaped, but then encountered another armed boat, although it was able to get away, the report added.
Vargas, meanwhile, denied that the maritime policemen fired shots while apprehending the alleged poachers. – with reports from Edwin Sevidal, dzMM; and Reuters