Carlo, Pinoy fisherman, deals with Chinese aggression

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Carlo Montehermozo, 33, has been fishing in the resource-rich Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea for 20 years.

Scarborough, locally called Bajo de Masinloc is abundant with fish and other marine resources and also serves as a temporary refuge during bad weather, a blessing for many Filipino fishermen. But this place is under threat, so is the livelihood of fishermen like Carlo.

"Di kagaya noon, kahit magsisid ka maghapon, okay lang, walang nagbabawal.Ngayon ang pangingisda natin dyan parang ninanakaw natin yung sarili nating isda," said Montehermozo.

The shoal has been inaccessible to Filipinos since China seized it from the Philippines during a tense standoff between the two countries in 2012. 

The Philippine Navy tried to arrest Chinese fishermen on board 8 vessels at the shoal and seize their catch, which included protected marine species. However, what was supposed to be a regular maritime patrol ended in a standoff when the Chinese maritime vessels got involved.

The United States brokered a deal between the Philippines and China to end the standoff. The Philippines and China agreed to leave the shoal, but the latter reneged on the supposed deal by refusing to withdraw its ships. Chinese ships have never left the area since.

China, which claims ownership of almost the entire South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through every year, has been vigorously conducting maritime patrols in the disputed sea, even in areas considered to be within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Since the Chinese occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, many Filipino fishermen have been finding themselves harassed by Chinese coast guard personnel. Carlo said he was once driven away by the Chinese using a water cannon, one of the common tools being used by the Chinese.

To enforce its claims, China has also built artificial islands on maritime features that the Philippines also claims, triggering concerns of militarization of the vital maritime route.

The Scarborough Shoal incident is considered as one of the reasons that forced the Philippines to file a case against China before a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal.

The Hague-based tribunal is set to release its ruling in May or June. China has refused to participate in the arbitration and is likely to ignore an unfavorable decision, but major powers such as the United States and Britain say the Asian giant must respect the tribunal’s decision.

Aside from the arbitration case, several Filipino fishermen also filed a complaint against China before the UN for denying them access to their traditional fishing ground.

In a sign of increasing tension in the South China Sea, China, for the first time, recently landed a military plane in one of the artificial islands in the disputed sea. There is also a concern that China is preparing to reclaim land on Scarborough after a Chinese survey ship was reportedly spotted in the area.

The Philippines, for its part, has been relying on the US for military assistance, with the government set to open at least five bases for US forces under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

But for fishermen like Montehermozo, the territorial dispute is simply taking what is rightfully ours.

"Kailangan talaga makuha natin ‘yan. Hindi naman sa kanila ‘yan eh; sa atin talaga," he said.

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