MANILA — More Filipinos fishermen are venturing to Bajo de Masinloc despite the continued presence of Chinese maritime forces, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said Thursday.
The PCG spotted some 20 Filipino fishing boats during its aerial patrol over Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales and within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
“Chineck natin ang mga fishermen dito sa area. May 2 barko tayo na kasabay nila na nandito na nagpapatrol—ang PCG BRP Gabriela Silang at BRP Suluan,” PCG spokesperson Commodore Armand Balilo told reporters who joined the maritime patrol operation.
(We checked our fishermen in the area. We have 2 ships which patrol with them, the BRP Gabriela Silang and BRP Suluan.)
“We are continuing our presence here [Bajo de Masinloc] at sa ibang area sa West Philippine Sea,” he. added.
(We are continuing our presence here and in other areas in the West Philippine Sea.)
For PCG Aviation Force’s CG Commodore Philipps Soria, who has been regularly patrolling the area, it feels good to see more Filipinos in the area.
“Nakakatuwa tignan na marami na ulit nakikitang mangingisda dito sa ating Bajo de Masinloc at bumabalik na sila sa kanilang kabuhayan,” Soria said.
“Sustained naman ang maritime patrol natin dito, although nung pandemic, nagkaroon ng temporary alignment ng air assets sa pagdedeliver ng ating food at test kits,” he added.
(It's good to see many fishermen returning to Bajo de Masinloc and their livelihood. Our maritime patrol here is sustained, although during the pandemic, there was a temporary alignment of air assets for the delivery of our food and test kits.)
China snatched control of the small ring of reefs from the Philippines in 2012. The fishing ground, tapped by generations of Filipinos, is one of many potential flashpoints for military conflict over the South China Sea.
China and Taiwan both claim sovereignty over almost the entire sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims to parts of it.
Of all the claimants, China has in recent years forced its stance most aggressively.
Last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs protested the "shadowing, blocking, dangerous maneuver and radio challenges" by the Chinese Coast Guard against PCG vessels conducting patrols and training exercises in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc.
During Thursday's patrol, the PCG spotted 4 China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels—2 inside and 2 outside Bajo de Masinloc. Two Chinese militia vessels were also observed outside the fishing grounds.
“Nandiyan lang din sila (CCG), nagpapatrol din kasabay din natin. Both are existing sa area,” Balilo noted. “Walang radio challenge.”
“Although may nakita tayong China Coast Guard, wala namang movement. Nandoon din mga mangingisda natin, andami rin nila,” he continued.
(They are just there, patrolling at the same time we do. Both are existing in the area. There is no radio challenge. Although we saw China Coast Guard ships, there was no movement. Our fishermen were there, there were a lot of them.)
Balilo said it has been a while since the coast guard last received reports of harassment of Filipino fishermen by CCG vessels.
“Wala na akong matandaan. May incidents noon, pero ang goal naman natin ngayon ay maipakita na okay pumunta dito para mangisda at narito ang presence ng PCG, aalalayan naman natin sila,” he said.
(I cannot recall any recent incident. There were previous incidents, but our goal now is to show that it is okay to go here to fish and that the PCG is here to assist them.)
“Ini-encourage natin ang mga Filipino fishermen na pumunta dito, mangisda. Ini-ensure natin sa kanila that the PCG is also here,” Balilo said.
(We encourage our Filipino fishermen to go here, fish. We assure them that the PCG is also here.)
Aside from securing the area, PCG personnel onboard BRP Gabriela Silang and BRP Suluan also distributed relief supplies and medicine kits to the Filipino fishermen.
A recent report by Agence France Presse said China's seizure of Scarborough robbed many fishermen of income. The fishermen say they mainly rely on "payaos", floating devices that attract yellowfin tuna, anchored away from the shoal and left alone by Chinese boats.
After decades of overfishing by countries surrounding the waters, the men have to spend longer at sea and resort to catching smaller fish. Even then, they sometimes struggle to break even, the report said.
One fisherman said members of his crew have gone inside the shoal under the cover of darkness, leaving them feeling like "a thief in your own backyard". But he said the shallow waters no longer teem with fish after the coral was "decimated" by Chinese giant clam harvesters.
China often invokes the so-called 9-dash line, a vague delineation based on maps from the 1940s, to justify its claims over the South China Sea.
The Philippines brought a case before an international court disputing China's stance. The tribunal ruled in 2016 that Beijing's claims have no legal basis. China has since ignored the ruling.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has pledged to uphold the court decision and insisted he would not let China trample on Manila's maritime rights.
— Reports from Bianca Dava, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse