PUERTO PRINCESA CITY , Philippines – Despite the arrest of 11 Chinese fishermen for engaging in illegal turtle trade at Half Moon Shoal last May, Beijing is not backing down from its encompassing claim in the West Philippine Sea.
China has expanded its maritime patrols toward the shoal to protect its fishing boats in contested waters.
Local fishermen from islets near Palawan noticed this development at the shoal, which the Philippines calls Hasa-Hasa, and in other rich fishing grounds in the region.
“Every time we went fishing at the shoal there was always a Chinese coast guard ship lurking around protecting their fishing vessels while hauling sea turtles being sold by their local contacts,” complained fishing boat skipper Hiya Saddalani of Barangay Bangkalaan, Balabac town.
A Chinese missile-firing frigate ran aground in the shoal in June 2012. The warship was immediately removed by Beijing while claiming it has sovereign rights over the shoal and its nearby waters to justify the presence of their warship in the area.
Saddalani also said that Chinese coast guard ships seen near the Hasa-Hasa Shoal are all coming from Mischief Reef.
Mischief Reef is within Philippine territory but it has been under the de facto control of the Chinese since 1994 when they initially occupied the place as a fisherman’s shelter. The reef has been developed into a naval facility and is now serving as a forward naval station of China’s Southern Fleet.
If not at Hasa-Hasa Shoal, the Chinese vessels are seen guarding Ayungin Shoal where a contingent of Philippine Marines are stationed and taking shelter at the Philippine Navy’s grounded ship BRP Sierra Madre, Saddalani said.
Known as the Bangkalaan boys, Saddalani’s group and fishermen’s groups from Iloilo, Antique, Batangas, Zambales and General Santos City have been defying the Chinese ships’ imposing presence at Hasa-Hasa Shoal and in other rich fishing grounds in the West Philippine Sea.
Fisherman Absari Hardon recounted that while his group was sailing back home last month after days at sea, a Chinese coast guard ship tailed their fishing boat coming from Lawak, another islet in disputed territory being occupied by Filipino troops.
But Hardon said local fishermen are not afraid of the intensified presence of Chinese patrol ships in most of the fishing grounds in West Philippine Sea because they know that they are fishing within Philippine territory.
What is disturbing, he said, is the apparent lack of support from the Philippine government to protect its fishermen from the continuing bullying of China.
“We just hope that Philippine authorities can protect us the way Chinese ships escort Chinese fishing boats. We want some support from our government,” Hardon added.
He also said that the Chinese fishermen are not really engaged in fishing at Hasa-Hasa Shoal but in buying sea turtles and other endangered sea species from their local contacts. Engaging in the sea turtle trade is more profitable than fishing because the Chinese traders are buying them at higher prices.With Edu Punay