MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte will soon sign an executive order declaring the Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary, an area where fishing is not allowed.
The Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, is in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"The President has decided to declare that as a sanctuary. That is a unilateral action from government," said National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr during a press conference with reporters on Sunday, November 20, in Lima, Peru.
Duterte even relayed his plan to Chinese President Xi Jinping during their bilateral meeting on Saturday, November 19, but Esperon could not immediately describe the Chinese leader's response to the idea.
Under the planned EO, fishing inside Scarborough Shoal itself, a triangular area "almost the size of Quezon City," will be banned to allow fish stocks to replenish. Esperon said the shoal functions as a spawning ground, needing protection.
"It is our position not to have fishing activities inside the triangle," said Esperon.
But fishing around the shoal will be allowed for Filipinos and Chinese, since the area is a traditional fishing ground, as stated in the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling awarded to the Philippines last July, he said.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), for its part, is looking for guidance from government agencies to help determine the boundaries of the no-fishing zone.
According to PCG Commandant William Melad, the PCG will consult both the Department of Environment and Natural Resouces (DENR) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to determine the portion of the Scarborough Shoal which will be designated as a marine sanctuary.
Said Melad, “We have to identify the areas of the Scarborough Shoal, where fishing will be banned… We will wait for more definitive guidance from concerned agencies first.”
While the PCG determines where to set its boundaries for the no-fishing zone, larger fishing vessels tend to restrict themselves to the periphery of Scarborough Shoal due to the surrounding corals. The corals bar passage of these sorts of ships into the shoal.
PCG Spokesperson Armand Balilo, meanwhile, welcomed Duterte's pronouncement, noting that the marine sanctuary will aid in preserving the shoal. “Any measure that tends to preserve the marine environment should be welcomed. It is dependent to the concept of common heritage principle, wherein such environment should be held in trust for future generations," Balilo explained.
Will China reciprocate?
Any Philippine security presence there, following the EO, will be in the form of civilian Coast Guard personnel to "take care" of the fishermen.
But asked if the Philippine government will impose sanctions on Chinese who fish in the shoal, Esperon said, "Let us not even talk about imposing now our will on the neighbor. ‘Wag mong pipilitin (Let's not force it)."
Esperon was optimistic that the Chinese government will reciprocate the unilateral move by the Philippines.
"Alam mo, 'yung mga bilateral, nagsisimula 'yan sa desire for unilateral declarations or nagsimula ka sa unilateral, mapupunta 'yan sa bilateral in due time," he said.
(You know, bilateral agreements often come from the desire for unilateral declarations or what starts as a unilateral decision becomes a bilateral decision in due time.)
In the past, the Chinese ships have also stopped Filipino fishermen from entering the shoal, purportedly to allow fish stocks to replenish.
Seas closer to the Chinese mainland have been overfished, leading the Chinese to depend on the Scarborough Shoal area for their fish supply, according to Lucio Pitlo III, a professor at the Ateneo Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies, in a previous interview with Rappler.
Demilitarization in Scarborough Shoal
Esperon gave assurances that the Duterte administration is not setting aside the Philippines' claim over parts of the West Philippine Sea, a claim affirmed by the international tribunal.
"We do not set that aside but we consciously think of it. However, we go into more productive activities like fishing and more maritime cooperation," he said. (READ: Joint development in EEZ 'prohibited' – Carpio)
Both the Chinese and Philippine governments plan to follow through with their agreement to boost cooperation between their Coast Guards, a cooperation that could lead to demilitarization in the West Philippine Sea.
"If you do that, more of Coast Guard, that simply means that there is a degree of demilitarization in the area, demilitarization because Coast Guard is civilian. We call that the white ships going there, compared to gray ships going to Scarborough," said Esperon.
Last October, the Department of National Defense had said Filipino fishermen have not been prevented from fishing in the area of Scarborough Shoal despite the presence of Chinese Coast Guard ships in the area.
This came after Duterte went on a state visit to China, where he discussed fishing rights in the West Philippine Sea with Xi. (READ: Improved situation in Scarborough only temporary – analysts) – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.