MANILA, Philippines – Leonardo Cuaresma, leader of a fisherfolk organization in Masinloc, Zambales, spent the beginning of 2017 surveying the fishing sites in the province of Guangdong in China, at one point even riding a Chinese coastguard ship along with 15 other Filipino fishermen.
This is the very same ship which at mere sight, had raised fear among members of Cuaresma’s organization, some of whom were attacked with water cannons by the Chinese coastguard in January 2014.
This incident, among others, signaled the growing tension between China and the Philippines over the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea, where Panatag Shoal, (also called Bajo de Masinloc and Scarborough Shoal) lies. The two have claimed ownership over the resource-rich area.
But in January 2017, Cuaresma and other Filipino fishermen who ventured in the disputed waters of Panatag Shoal and Spratly Islands in Palawan (5 participants hailed from Region III or Central Luzon and 11 others came from Region IV-B where Palawan is) – were not sent away by this ship; it instead took them to fishing havens in China to expose them to Beijing’s fisheries technology.
“We rode in the ship of [the] maritime coastguard. From the shoreline up to 200 nautical miles, [you can see] fish cages,” Cuaresma, the leader of Nilalamo A Asosyanon Nin Maninilay Ha Babalin Masinloc (NAMBM Inc) or Federated Association of Fisherfolk in Masinloc, said.
It was a gesture of goodwill, one that could not be expected from China 4 years ago, when the Philippines lodged a case against the military and economic behemoth before an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Philippines said China’s nine-dash line is an invalid basis for its maritime claim over the West Philippine Sea.
In July 2016, the Philippines won; China did not recognize the ruling.
In spite of this, President Rodrigo Duterte moved to develop warmer ties with Beijing partly because Manila could not match China’s military might. It was also a consequence of his decision to veer away from the United States, the Philippines’ longstanding ally.
The Philippines, along with the 9 other member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 3 of which are also claimants of parts of the South China Sea (Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) now aim to finalize a framework for the Code of Conduct over the area by June. This was announced on February 21 as ASEAN foreign ministers held a meeting in Boracay.
But outside the diplomatic arena, China’s decision to explore a different approach and strategy in dealing with Filipino fishermen appears to be shaky. They sent Filipino fishermen to an educational trip and mentioned possible investments.
But here’s the catch – Cuaresma said they cannot adopt China’s techniques to increase fish production.
'Not so good'
The apprehension stems from what they saw in China’s waters.
“Not so good. The water in the river is not good. Malabo (murky). Because of the fishpond,” Cuaresma said.
“In China, they cannot protect their marine resources. They don’t have any corals, sea grass. Too much activities,” he added.
Cuaresma and his companions were flown to China in the second week of January to attend a workshop on the Sino-Filipino Fishery Training Exchange. The goal is for Filipino fishermen to learn how China increased its fish production.
The workshop was announced in December 2016 when Liu Xinzhong, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture went to Masinloc to discuss the provision of modern technology, equipment, and financial assistance to fishermen.
Cuaresma and his group met officials from the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute in the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences and the National Agricultural Science and Technology Park in Guangdong. They were taught about aquaculture, or fish farming and marine culture, one of the methods of aquaculture which uses fish cages.
Cuaresma said, however, that these are not appropriate for the waters of Masinloc because they require the proliferation of fish cages. “Puro burak gawa ng fish cages, may sediments,” he said. (A lot of mire because of the fish cages, there were sediments.)
The Fisheries Code of the Philippines or Republic Act No. 8550 states that “not over 10 percent of the suitable water surface area of all lakes and rivers shall be allotted for aquaculture purposes like fish pens, fish cages and fish traps.”
Masinloc also bars the construction of additional fish cages. “Our friend in China likes fish cages [but] our municipality has a resolution that only the existing fish cages can operate in our municipality, municipal waters,” Medel Murata, the municipal environment and natural resources officer, said.
Murata said fish cages cause siltation especially during summer as well as algal bloom. The algae covers or swamps the corals, killing them; hence they have prohibited the establishment of more fish cages because, he said, the number of coral reefs in Masinloc has dwindled.
He added that he is worried about the proliferation of fish cages because they may drive the fisherfolk in Masinloc out of business. “If this multiplies in our coastal or in our marine water, there’s no area for small fishers.”
Cuaresma said if the Chinese float financial investments or assistance for the fishermen in Masinloc, he and his 1,000-member organization cannot accept these if they will require the use of fish cages.
“Our reaction – tanggapin pera (accept the money) but not regarding marine o aquaculture. The fishermen here in our country [are] really concerned about the environment. If people have their marine culture we cannot allow that..di siya applicable sa aming katubigan (it's not applicable to our waters),” he said.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, which attended the workshop, along with the fishermen and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, held the same view that Chinese technology is not fit for Philippine waters.
“The group appreciates the technologies but concern for the environment was considered if ever the technologies were adopted in the Philippines,” Willy Cruz from BFAR Region III said.
“Aquaculture technologies without the use of formulated feeds is considered. Only high value feeds using trash fish like the sardines of Zamboanga is prioritized.”
We tried to get the side of the Chinese government about the issues raised by Cuaresma and BFAR. We emailed the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute in the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, the National Agricultural Science and Technology Park, Liu Xinzhong, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and the Chinese embassy but have not gotten any response as of posting.
Up to the government
During their one-week training in China, Cuaresma said there had been no mention of the territorial tiff over the West Philippine Sea.
The Filipino fishermen did not inquire if they can fish again in the lagoon in Bajo de Masinloc – which, they said, is teeming with fish – and not just in the waters surrounding it. Neither did the Chinese make any reference to the issue.
But it was the big elephant in the room.
Aside from environmental concerns, Cuaresma wanted to know if there are tradeoffs to China’s sudden show and offer of friendship.
He said even if the Chinese pour investments or opportunities for them to earn money, such as possibly having Chinese companies buy their fish, this will not be enough compensation for what the fishermen in Masinloc stand to lose if the Chinese government continues to forbid them from fishing in Bajo de Masinloc.
“Sa tingin ko, sariling pananaw, hindi yun ang dahilan, offer nila sa min yun, di yun ang kapalit lang ng mawawala sa amin. Ginagawa nila sa min pambu-bully lang,” he said. (I think, my personal view is, that is not the reason, they're ofering that to us in exchange for what we will lose. They're just bullying us.)
Unknown to Cuaresma and his group, however, the prohibition to fish in the lagoon in Bajo de Masinloc had the approval of the Philippine government.
President Rodrigo Duterte said in November 2016 he would issue an executive order declaring Panatag Shoal a marine sanctuary, turning it into a no-fish zone.
Cuaresma said they will stand firm and not accept any assistance from the Chinese if this again, will mean that they will have to use fish cages and if this will lead to the banning of Filipino fishermen from Bajo de Masinloc.
But he said if the national government says they should say yes, they will have no choice but to comply.
“What the government decides, we will follow them. [But] for me, [there’s] no trust [for the Chinese].” – Rappler.com