CLARK FREEPORT, Philippines – The Philippines will lift on July 15 the fishing ban it imposed last May at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off the coast of Zambales, half a month earlier than the scheduled lifting of a similar ban imposed by China.
Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) national director Asis Perez yesterday said the fishing ban had nothing to do with the territorial dispute with China over Panatag.
China was the first to announce the fishing ban in May, followed by the Philippines.
President Aquino approved the fishing ban at Panatag and surrounding areas to protect marine resources and Filipino fishermen.
BFAR officials said the fishing ban was also meant to conserve fishery resources and replenish fish stock.
The officials said the seasonal fishing ban has been imposed since 1999, usually from May 16 to Aug. 1.
Perez said BFAR would lift the ban and allow Filipinos to fish at Panatag Shoal by July 15.
China’s fishing ban is until Aug. 1 and covers nearly the entire South China Sea. It is meant ostensibly to curb overfishing in waters China claims as its territory.
Parts of the sea are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The area is a vital shipping lane, and is believed to be rich in oil and gas.
Perez said the fishing ban was merely a conservation measure. He warned against the occurrence of another fishkill that hit Bolinao, Pangasinan last May where some 70 tons of bangus (milkfish) were killed due to the drop of oxygen level in local waters.
Perez admitted, however, that conservational fish bans in 13 other parts of the country were lifted last February and that the Panatag Shoal area is now the only one still with fishing ban in effect.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) confirmed yesterday that no vessel of any kind was within the Panatag lagoon.
Zambales Vice Gov. Ramon Lacbain earlier urged fishermen to stay away from the shoal being claimed by both China and the Philippines.
“I am personally urging our fisherfolk to avoid fishing within the area so as not to ignite the territorial controversy,” Lacbain said.
Lt. Commander Armand Balilo of the PCG said no vessel could be found as of yesterday noon in Panatag.
China was reported to have pulled more than 20 fishing boats out of the lagoon of Panatag.
Lacbain noted that last year, even before the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over Panatag flared up, the town of Masinloc passed a resolution affirming that the shoal referred to as Bajo de Masinloc was part of its territory.
“I suppose the resolution was passed because the shoal is also near Cabangan and Palauig, although the towns never really had any territorial dispute,” he said.
Panatag Shoal is located 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales.
It is within the Philippines’200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is a signatory.
A standoff ensued on April 10 after Chinese maritime surveillance ships barred the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species like giant clams and sharks.
The Philippines has protested the Chinese vessels’action but China insisted that it has sovereignty over the area.
Last week, President Aquino directed two Philippine ships to pull out of Panatag Shoal due to bad weather.
Ordered to return to port were a Coast Guard ship and a BFAR vessel that symbolized the country’claim over the area.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said they would evaluate whether the ships would be sent back to the shoal once the weather improves.
The DFA had also claimed that China would also pull its ships but this was later denied by Beijing.
Beijing’denial dashed hopes that the standoff, which triggered fresh tension in the West Philippine Sea, was nearing its end.
Aquino on Monday said the government is ready to send ships back to the shoal if Chinese vessels remain there.
On June 20, an alleged Chinese vessel accidentally rammed a local fishing boat in Bolinao, Pangasinan, north of the disputed Panatag Shoal, killing one and leaving four others missing.
The PCG continued its search and rescue operations for the four missing fishermen of AXL John.
PCG spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said the search and rescue operations for the four fishermen would continue until Saturday.
The Philippine Navy, on the other hand, said at least 90 foreign vessels might have been in the area at the time of the accident. The Navy sought the assistance of various international maritime organizations to identify the foreign ship, one of them believed to be the Hong Kong-registered M/V Peach Mountain.
Malacañang yesterday said the initial investigation into the incident showed a foreign vessel accidentally sideswiped the Filipino fishing boat after its anchor snapped.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda also said there was nothing wrong with the pronouncements of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council chief Benito Ramos that the incident was accidental, not intentional or deliberate.
Lacierda said based on the affidavit of the surviving boat captain, Emedio Balmores, it was when their fishing boat got separated from the payaw (anchor) that an unidentified vessel with a Hong Kong insignia passed but did not ram them as earlier reported.
The vessel, Gazmin pointed out, did not bother to stop to rescue the drifting fishermen.
In the course of the search and rescue for the missing fishermen, there were three others found by authorities drifting at sea.
“But these fishermen are not related to the incident with the Hong Kong-registered vessel. But, just to let you know, these are lives which are just as important... apparently they were also stranded at sea on account of the storm,” Lacierda said.
He said this was also the reason why the government was carefully evaluating the weather and other conditions before deciding to redeploy vessels to Panatag Shoal.
“The investigation is still ongoing as to the identity of the vessel. That has not yet been (established)… so what is clear is that the rope from the anchor (snapped) and (the boat) was swept to the path of the (foreign vessel)… But, as to the identity of the vessel, that’s still ongoing. The investigation is still ongoing,” Lacierda said.
He said the government would consult maritime experts as to how to deal with the foreign vessel once identified.
Lacierda also took the opportunity to highlight the fact that vessels of the PCG had been deployed regularly in the area to protect fishermen as well as the maritime and environmental resources of the country, not because of the standoff with China over Panatag Shoal.
“Prior to the order to leave the Bajo de Masinloc (or Panatag due to bad weather), we have always provided vessels there. They do it on an alternate basis. So there is no basis with respect to redeployment. There’s always a vessel either of the Coast Guard or of the BFAR. So we have done that for several weeks prior to our decision to leave Panatag Shoal due to bad weather conditions,” he said.
Lacierda said the PCG and BFAR vessels had stayed in Panatag Shoal for sometime, depending on the situation.
“We have done that. I would have to ask the Coast Guard and the BFAR but, as far as we know, we have done that ever since the standoff until the time when the President ordered them to be removed from the shoal due to weather conditions. There’s always been presence of vessels either by the Coast Guard or by the BFAR,” he said.
On the other hand, Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said they have to identify with certainty the foreign vessel involved in the accident from the volumes of maritime data that started to come in.
Pama said the real culprit could be one of the dozens of foreign vessels transiting through the busy sea lane, being a maritime highway, as MV Peach Mountain was far from the point of impact.
Pama though remarked that other factors, like favorable winds and sea current, could have also increased the speed of Peach Mountain into the area.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), on the other hand, provided financial and livelihood assistance to the families of the rescued fishermen.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said they initially extended P5,000 financial assistance and family food packs to the families of the eight fishermen.
She said the DSWD-Region I and the local government of Bolinao agreed to provide livelihood assistance to the affected fishermen.
A stress debriefing session was also conducted at the Office of the Mayor to help the fishermen cope with the effects of the traumatic incident, Soliman said. Subsequent sessions will be conducted to ensure that their psychosocial functioning will be restored, she added.
Soliman said two of the fishermen are beneficiaries of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), the government’s conditional cash transfer program. – Aurea Calica, Jaime Laude, Helen Flores, Teddy Molina