Filipino fishermen pin hopes on arbitration case


Posted at Jul 11 2016 02:29 AM

Fishermen take a break after returning from a fishing trip in the West Philippine Sea, on the shores of Infanta town, Pangasinan province, northwest of Manila. Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

Filipino fishermen fishing near the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) are pinning their hopes on an international tribunal ruling allowing them the right to fish freely in the country's Exclusive Economic Zone without interference from Beijing.

PANGASINAN - Philippine fishermen at a coastal town in Pangasinan province are pinning their hopes on an international tribunal ruling that could allow them the right to fish freely in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) without interference from Beijing.

An international court in the Hague is set to deliver an anticipated ruling in the Philippines' case against China over the South China Sea on July 12, drawing an immediate rebuke from Beijing, which rejects the tribunal's jurisdiction.

Manila is contesting China's historical claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Several Southeast Asian states have overlapping claims in the sea and the dispute has sparked concerns of a military confrontation that could disrupt global trade.

A third of the coastal town of Infanta, which relied heavily on fishing in the South China Sea, have been affected by the standoff ever since China blocked access to Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

A fishing boat captain told Reuters that they used to bring in more than seven tonnes of fish during their 16-hour trip to the shoal, which provided more than enough livelihood for their families and the community.

"It would be great if we win because it will be opened all of the Filipino fishermen can fish in the Scarborough. It is our source of livelihood and Scarborough is great place, that is why I hope we win," said boat captain Luis Madarang.

"Scarborough Shoal is the only place where there is an abundance of fish, so if it is lost to our fishermen, there will be lesser fish to catch. Scarborough also serves as their only sanctuary when inclement weather strikes while they're at sea," said municipal official Luis Madarang.

Madarang said many of the fishermen feared going back to the shoal due to the presence of Chinese coastguard patrols and their alleged bullying of Filipino fishermen.

Several fishermen in other coastal towns reported to have been rammed by Chinese coastguard vessels or bombarded with water cannons once they approach the mouth of the shoal.

"This is where we grew up and this is how we earn our livelihood. It was a pleasure fishing there, but now we are having difficulties because of China. I hope we can take back our shoal," said Rubenado Querubin, a 34-year-old fishing boat captain who was overseeing the construction of a large boat that will make its maiden voyage to the South China Sea in two weeks.

The demand for Philippine fisheries industry in 2010 was estimated at 2.9 metric tonnes, but with its rapidly growing population, demand is expected to increase to 4.2 million metric tonne by 2020.

The local government has set up alternative means of catching fishes outside the shoal like setting up artificial trapping devices and alternative livelihood to help the fishermen.

Victor Manhit, Managing Director of Stratbase Institute for International and strategic Studies, said the Philippine government should take a stronger stand if the arbitration case is in favour to Manila and settle matters with China diplomatically on territorial disputes, including the fate of the Filipino fishermen under Philippine law.

"We need to tell China that what happened here is the victory of the rule of law. That this is not about war, this has something to do with a court decision based on international rules, and as Filipinos we are not here to challenge them on their sovereignty, but we are here simply to defend our maritime rights and our own territorial integrity based on international law," he said.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has changed his tone from a campaign slogan that he will ride a jet ski and plant a Philippine flag on the shoal to stake the country's claim, has opted not to exacerbate the situation with China if the decision goes Manila's way .

About $5 trillion of goods pass annually through waters in the South China Sea, a vital shipping point which has seen military buildup and potential flash point.