Oyster Bay fishermen worry about naval outpost
PALAWAN, Philippines – When they heard the choppers, residents of Barangay Bahile in Puerto Princesa City ran to the empty-lot-turned-impromptu-helipad they prepared at the back of a public elementary school. Many of them haven’t seen a chopper up close or as many military officers arriving in their small barangay. And when President Benigno Aquino III arrived and waved at them on May 27, they cheered in excitement.
The sleepy barangay of 3,000 Palaweños is seeing a lot of changes since the national government set its eyes on the underdeveloped naval detachment located in its own Oyster Bay, a bay within a bay located 160 kilometers from the disputed Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratlys).
The flurry of activities for the Philippine Navy celebration of its 116th anniversary at the Naval Forces West headquarters in adjacent Barangay Macarascas brings the message home. Times are changing. Residents are looking forward to more development, more visitors, new job opportunities, and a livelier economy.
The national government is building roads leading to the naval detachment. There’s also talk of plans to expand their small wharf to accommodate more police maritime boats. They're hoping for help in fixing their water system, too. (READ: Construction begins in 'US base' Oyster Bay)
Concerned about restrictions
Residents raised one concern, however. Will the fishermen lose their fishing grounds when more ships begin to use Oyster Bay?
"Naitanong na rin po namin noong nagpunta dito ang naval. Paano naman kung nandiyan ang barko itong aming mangingisda? Baka naman pagbawalan silang mangisda diyan sa Ulugan Bay," Barangay Captain Carlos Quirante told Rappler.
(We raised our concern when the Navy came here. What happens to our fishermen when the ships are there? They might be barred from fishing in Ulugan Bay.")
Oyster Bay is inside the bigger Ulugan Bay that faces the West Philippines Sea, which is being contested by other countries such as China. Fishing is the community's main livelihood and they consider these their own fishing grounds.
Quirante is a retired navy man who was deployed in Oyster Bay in the 80s. He understands the need to secure the naval detachment once it gets busy, but his job now is to protect the interests of the barangay population.
He is counting on the assurance of the navy that Ulugan Bay will remain open to the fishermen even if Oyster Bay will be restricted.
Puerto Princesa Mayor Lucilo Bayron said it shouldn't be a problem because municipal waters covering 15 kilometers from shoreline are considered fishing grounds.
"Palagay ko kung ako fisherman, hindi ako matatakot ng ganoon kasi dadami ang kakain. Dadami ang demand at gaganda ang price. Mas marami ang kikitain ng fishermen," Bayron said. (If I were a fisherman, I won't be concerned because there will be higher demand for fish. The price will be better. They will earn more.)
Restrictions in Oyster Bay began 5 years ago. About a hundred houses across the bay from the naval detachment were demolished when the area was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. The families were relocated to the barangay proper.
But fishermen now are still allowed inside Oyster Bay to set up fish traps and to get water supply. (WATCH: Construction begins in 'US base' Oyster Bay)
"Sa ngayon hindi pa naman strikto sa mangingisda. Ang Oyster Bay po sa ngayon ay dine-develop pa rin. Ngayon, hirap po kami sa tubig. Malakas pa ang tubig sa Oyster Bay. Ang ibang mangingisda pumupunta po sila diyan,” said Quirante.
(They are not strict yet. Oyster Bay is currently being developed. We have difficulties with our water supply. Oyster Bay has better supply. Some of the fishermen go there.)
There are 5 water pumps in the barangay but sometimes only two have water and the others dry out. Quirante said they are working with the water district to repair their water system.
“'Yung kalsada na bubuksan na idudugtong sa Oyster ay malaking bagay para sa mga mangingisda. Kung papayagan po 'yan na gamitin ang kalsada, malaking bagay para sa transportation para sa nahuling isda,” he said.
(The roads connecting to Oyster Bay will be a big help to the fishermen. If they will be allowed to use the roads, it will help them transport their catch.)
EDCA and US troops
While the Philippines and the US have yet to formalize the selection of military bases that will be offered to the US, residents are already talking about Oyster Bay as an outpost that will host US troops under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
It's the naval detachment nearest the disputed maritime territories but it is hidden, offering ships protection from storms, strong winds, and the prying telescopes of foreign navies.
“Hindi pa naman po siguro pumapasok ang Kano pero meron po tayong idea diyan na mayroon share ang US Navy sa area na iyan,” said Barangay Kagawad Romeo Mopal. (There are no Americans in Oyster Bay yet but we have an idea that the US Navy has a share in that area.)
The national government alloted an initial fund of P300 million to upgrade the facilities so it can serve as an operational base for the country's newly acquired warships BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz. (READ: PH Navy asking for 3rd warship from US)
Despite their concern over possible restrictions on the fishing grounds, residents and barangay officials interviewed by Rappler welcome the US troops to help address the maritime conflict with China. (READ: Troops fear 'miscalculation' in next mission to Ayungin)
“Kung sa akin lang po, nararamdaman ko naman ang situation ngayon. Kung ito po ay ikagaganda ng ating national security e bakit naman po hindi natin payagan kung may project na para sa ating bansa,” Quirante said. (READ: How far will the US go to defend the Philippines)
(We understand the situation. If it will improve our national security, why shouldn't we allow a project that will benefit the country?)
Mayor Bayron said there are no talks yet about EDCA. He welcomes the Philippine Navy's improvements on Oyster Bay but he said consultations will be needed if the outpost will be offered to the US.
"Magkonsulta tayo kasi far reaching ang impact niyan kung ang pag-uusapan natin parang Subic style na concept," said Bayron. (READ: What is EDCA? Loook at Zambo's PH-US joint operations)
(We have to conduct consultations because the impact will be far reaching if we are talking about a Subic-style concept.)
Access to the agreed locations under EDCA has been one of the more contentious issues during the negotiations. The final deal gives the Philippines access to US facilities through a "designated authority and its authorized representative."
The mayor also assuaged concerns about the possible destruction of Palawan's marine protected sanctuaries. Environmentalists have raised fears, citing the incident in Tubbataha where a US ship destroyed corals. (READ: 1,000 sq meters of Tubbataha Reef damaged by US ship – gov't)
“Laging may compromise. Development or status quo? Pipili tayo kung saan natin gustong pumunta. Marami nagde-decide, marami nag-a-advice na mahalaga ang development basta ang destruction controlled. Pwede naman magkaroon ng balanse,” Bayron said. (There's always a compromise. Development or status quo? We will choose the direction we want to pursue. There are those who say development is important as long as destruction is controlled. It can be a balance.)
Ulugan Bay is located near the world famous Puerto Princesa Underground River. Barangay residents are counting on the city government's strict environmental ordinances to protect the bay. – Rappler.com