MANILA, Philippines - Chinese maritime vessels have started imposing fishing restrictions on Filipino fishermen returning to Panatag Shoal by denying them entry inside the lagoon.
Located 120 nautical miles from mainland Zambales, Panatag Shoal used to be the target and practice area of US jetfighters during air drills when they had military bases here.
It is now in the crosshairs of a festering territorial standoff between the Philippines and China.
“Our fishermen who returned to the area were barred from entering the lagoon to fish by Chinese maritime vessels using their floodlights to drive them away,” Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora in Zambales province said yesterday.
Speaking on the mayor’s behalf, Edora’s secretary RJ Bautista also complained that while the Chinese maritime vessels were doing this to Filipinos, they allowed their own fishing vessels and fishermen inside the lagoon.
Fearing for their safety, Filipino fishermen are now simply fishing outside the lagoon.
“They are fishing outside because they’ve been prevented by the Chinese from entering the lagoon,” Bautista said.
After decades of fishing in the area, Filipinos last cast nets inside the rich fishing ground on April 15, about a week after the standoff began.
Bautista said the local fishermen returned to the area to fish last Sunday after getting clearance from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), who assured them of protection.
But “powerful floodlights from Chinese vessels at the mouth of the lagoon,” according to Bautista, have driven away the fishermen.
As of Sunday, military monitoring of the area showed that there are already seven Chinese fishing vessels and 23 utility boats conducting destructive fishing activities inside the lagoon.
Outside, two Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships CMS 75 and CMS 81 are guarding the mouth of the lagoon with their FLEC 310 (Fisheries Law Enforcement Command) ship not far away.
The Philippines, however, maintains that the area is within the country’s territorial domain and has deployed two vessels, the BRP EDSA 2 of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Maritime Control Ship 3001 (MCS-3001) of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
Maintaining a non-confrontational stance, the military leadership in Northern Luzon (Nolcom) said it could not comment on the issue because they don’t have any information yet on the matter.
Nolcom, under the command of Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, has operational jurisdiction over Panatag Shoal.
“As to that report, we have no information on that, so we cannot comment on it,” Capt. Aurelio Kigis, Nolcom spokesman, said.
US to turn over USCGC Dallas later this month
The Philippine government is set to receive before the end of this month a second Hamilton-class cutter it has acquired from the United States, the Philippine Navy said yesterday.
Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, Navy chief, said that USCGC Dallas, a decommissioned US Coast Guard cutter, would be turned over to the Philippine government either on May 22 or May 23.
He said that the cutter would first undergo major repairs in the US before sailing home in November for a scheduled commissioning by the end of this year.
Among the major repairs needed is the replacement of the vessel’s fourth main engine.
Pama said that the cost of repairs and transfer of the Dallas to the country is almost the same as that of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.
He added: “We have to train our men there for them to be able to bring home our second Hamilton-class cutter.”
Last year, the Philippines acquired the Gregorio del Pilar, also a decommissioned US Coast Guard all weather endurance cutter, in line with ongoing efforts to build a credible territorial defense.
Now the Navy’s flagship, the Gregorio del Pilar figured last month in a standoff with Chinese maritime vessels in Panatag Shoal but was pulled out to de-escalate the conflict.
Pama is hoping that the US government will not remove the already installed equipment from the Dallas, which Washington did to the Del Pilar.