Gem-Ver

Former Gem-Ver captain says more Chinese ships fishing in Recto Bank

Sofia Tomacruz

CAPTAIN. Former F/B Gem-Ver boat captain Junel Insigne on November 15, 2019.

LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

'Noong nakaraang biyahe namin, lalong dumami po ‘yung mga [barkong] China na katulad doon sa mga bumangga po sa amin,' says former Gem-Ver captain Junel Insigne

Junel Insigne, the former captain of Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver, said it has become more difficult to fish in Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea, after more Chinese vessels have crowded the area. 

Noong nakaraang biyahe namin, lalong dumami po ‘yung mga [barkong] China na katulad doon sa mga bumangga po sa amin (On our last trip, there were more Chinese vessels in the area similar to the one that hit us),” Junel told Rappler in an interview on Tuesday, June 8. 

Junel was the captain of FB Gem-Ver, that was rammed, sunk, and abandoned by a Chinese trawler in the West Philippine Sea on June 9, 2019. The sinking was one of the biggest crises to hit the Duterte administration and had put a spotlight on President Rodrigo Duterte’s defeatist stand on the maritime issue. 

Junel said he is headed back to Recto Bank as the new captain of fishing boat T/G Thanksgiving, which hailed from the same home port of Gem-Ver in Barangay San Roque, San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. He last went to Recto Bank in May 2021 and is due to arrive in the area again in a few days, after waiting out bad weather from Culiat, Palawan. 

Junel said he and his crew were hoping to bring in about seven tons of fish in a few weeks, but said the heavier presence of Chinese ships in the area had affected his ship’s catch in recent trips. 

Halos nakadikit na po sa amin…naglalayo na lang po kami….. Naapektuhan ‘yung panghuli rin namin gawa ng mas malakas sila manghuli kaysa sa amin…. Kulang pa rin po pagka ganuon ang panghuhuli,” he said, adding that their recent hauls have averaged only about four tons of fish. 

(They’re practically beside us…. We just distance ourselves…. It’s affected our haul because they can catch more than us…. Our catch is not enough if the situation is like that.)

Gem-Ver catch affected

Like Junel, Gem-Ver owner Fe dela Torre said the fishing boat’s catch from recent trips has become less than in previous years. Gem-Ver also fishes in Recto Bank and continues to return to the resource-rich area despite the near-death experience of its crew in 2019. 

Fe said that while previous trips were able to bring in extra catch for the fishermen and the Dela Torre family regularly, it was rare now for recent trips to bring in the same. 

Mahirap na, konti na lang po ‘yung panghuli ngayon. Hindi katulad dati na marami silang inuuwi…. Minsan may huli na marami, meron din pong konti. Pero hindi po tulad dati…ngayon, medyo sapat lang,” she said. 

(It’s been difficult, the catch is smaller now. It’s not like before when they [fishermen] were able to bring home a lot…. Sometimes they bring in a big catch, other times it’s small. But it’s no longer like before….now, it’s just enough to get by.)

A group of Philippine scientists earlier warned that continuous incursions from foreign vessels, including Chinese ships, could affect the food security of the Philippines as well as the safety and livelihood of about 627,000 fisherfolk.

Beijing’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, including its island-building activities, have likewise destroyed at least 16,000 hectares of reefs as of 2017, according to AGHAM-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People. 

Filipino marine scientists also estimated that the Philippines was losing about P33.1 billion annually from damaged reef ecosystems at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and the Spratly Islands due to China’s reclamation activities and illegal fishing operations. 

In April, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said a “conservative total” of 240,000 kilos of fish could’ve been illegally taken from Philippine waters every single day that at least 240 Chinese ships remained in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines had earlier protested the illegal presence of Chinese ships in the country’s waters.

Gem-Ver crew still hope for aid from China 2 years later

Only source of livelihood

Despite the hardship, Junel said he would continue to return to Recto Bank as it was his only source of livelihood. Finding work has likewise become more urgent as the pandemic drags on and Gem-Ver’s crew still wait for promised aid from the Duterte government and China. 

Obligado pong maglaot, kailangang-kailangan din po (I’m obliged to fish because we need it badly),” Junel said. – Rappler.com

Read Rappler’s exclusive series on the fishermen of Gem-Ver here:

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.