PANGASINAN - Filipino fishermen in the northwestern part of the Philippine main island of Luzon have expressed hopes for a permanence of their revived access to the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea which China took control of in early 2012, fueling heightened tension between the two countries during the last four years.
"It would be nice if we can continue our livelihood there at Scarborough. We should no longer be driven away," Gilbert Baoya, 59, a fisherman from the coastal town of Infanta in Pangasinan province, north of Manila, told Kyodo News a week after experiencing China's "surprising" relaxation of restrictions at the disputed shoal, which is located a little over 120 nautical miles from the coast of Luzon, and more than 420 nautical miles from China.
The Filipino fishermen's uninterrupted fishing activities at the Scarborough Shoal resumed immediately after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's Oct. 18-21 visit to China, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders.
From the time China seized the triangular coral atoll in April 2012, marking the start of its renewed aggressive assertion of its claims in disputed territories in the South China Sea, Filipino fishermen have been forcefully shooed away by Chinese authorities. In some instances, the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannon against Filipino fishermen.
The restriction was also applied to Philippine authorities on certain occasions.
An international tribunal ruled in July this year that the shoal is a traditional fishing ground for various nationalities.
The arbitral ruling, which invalidated China's nine dash-line claim over almost the entire South China Sea, did not settle, however, the conflicting claims for sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal.
Baoya admitted he never stopped sailing toward the shoal despite China's blockade during the last four years because it is his only source of income. The longtime fisherman is raising a 13-year-old mute daughter and an eight-year-old son, together with his wife.
Almost every time he and his fellow fishermen tried to approach the periphery of the shoal, the Chinese Coast Guard would successfully drive them away, forcing them instead to catch fish several miles away in the deep sea.
Baoya said that during most of those expeditions, the harvests were not as satisfying as when he could freely catch fish around Scarborough Shoal. His income was effectively reduced to barely just enough to support his family's basic needs.
After learning about Duterte's trip to China, he and his fellow fishermen decided to sail on Oct. 22 for Scarborough Shoal, confident that the situation had normalized, as they were aware of the Philippine leader's intent to bring up the plight of Filipino fishermen before Chinese leaders.
Arriving in the afternoon of Oct. 23, "we were surprised that we were being driven away" by the Chinese Coast Guard. "They told us, Go! Go! Go!"
During the next two days, he and his group settled for catching fish several kilometers away again. However, because that was not so productive there, they returned to the shoal on the night of Oct. 25.
"We anchored outside the shoal around 7 p.m. on Oct. 25, without the Chinese noticing us. We were prepared to be driven away again the following morning. But to our surprise, we were not," Baoya said.
So, as the Chinese ships passed by without issuing prohibition orders against them, Baoya and his group freely cast their lines to catch 1,300 kilograms of fish, which sold for around 120,000 pesos (almost $2,475), over two days.
Franklin Catiggay of the Philippine Coast Guard unit in Masinloc town in Zambales province, immediately south of Pangasinan, confirmed to Kyodo News the "improved relations" with China around Scarborough Shoal.
"If ever fisherfolks here who intend to sail to Scarborough Shoal will ask for my permission, I can advise them to go there already because no less than the president said we're already okay in the area, and some fishermen from Infanta (in Pangasinan) have also successfully fished there already," Catiggay said in a separate interview.
A few hundred meters away from Baoya's residence, fisherman Chris de Vera, 47, was busy preparing to sail to Scarborough Shoal after hearing of the positive development.
Having only attempted once to go to the shoal this year -- he was hoping to catch tuna in July but was promptly shooed away by the Chinese Coast Guard -- de Vera said he is geared up for the trip, boosted by the recent experience of his fellow fishermen.
Last year, de Vera joined others in attempting to fish at the shoal, but the exercise was futile, and he recalled his group being hit with water cannon and being "lasered" by the Chinese in March 2015.
The Scarborough Shoal is also important to the local fishermen as the interior offers safe refuge during bad weather, de Vera said.
"It would be much better if this continues, especially now that it's northeast monsoon season, because we need to secure ourselves inside the shoal," he said of the resumption of access.
Dante Paluan, the administrator of the village where Baoya and de Vera live, said the improved situation is significantly beneficial to the community, as 80 percent of its 4,800 people rely on fishing.
Baoya and de Vera expressed appreciation to Duterte for making true to his campaign promise of attending to the plight of Filipino fishermen affected by the territorial dispute. The two admitted they were among the 16.6 million Filipinos who voted for the 71-year-old leader in May.
However, they remained apprehensive about the continuity of access to the shoal, with Baoya noting reports about the lack of a formal agreement pertaining to it.
Jay Batongbacal, a maritime expert from the University of the Philippines, noted that the continuing presence of Chinese Coast Guard vessels, "standing guard and keeping a watchful eye over the shoal, is both symbol and evidence of China's maritime administration and control."
"Considering the Chinese Coast Guard's continued sole and declared administration of the shoal, failure to assert and exercise such jurisdiction (by the Philippines) amounts to a tacit abandonment of Scarborough Shoal," Batongbacal said.
During his trip last week, Baoya said there were two large Chinese coast guard ships and one fisheries vessel guarding the exterior of the shoal, and one smaller Chinese coast guard ship inside.
Persistent as he was, even at the time of China's restrictive actions during the last four years, Baoya said, "even if we will be driven away, we will continue going back, because I don't think the Chinese will shoot us just for catching fish."