An aerial view of Matalvis, a fishing village facing the South China Sea in Masinloc, Philippines, May 28, 2021. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Filipino Fishermen Feel Effects from Beijing’s Expansionism in South China Sea

China has made it harder for local fleets to access prime fishing grounds, Philippine fishers say.

Jojo Riñoza and Jason Gutierrez – Masinloc, Infanta, and Bani, Philippines

Seasoned Filipino fisherman Henrylito Empoc was supervising repairs to the hull of his crew’s boat in Masinloc, a fishing port on the west coast of Luzon, the largest island in the northern Philippines.

It was a sunny day in late May. The weather ensured a good bounty, but Empoc was staying on shore that day.

He said he would rather use the time to fix the boat, instead of sail it out on the open waters. He expected the Chinese coast guard to block fishing fleets from Masinloc and other coastal towns facing the South China Sea from accessing Scarborough Shoal, a traditional rich fishing ground located in disputed waters some 118 nautical miles (218.5 km) west of Luzon.

“It just really makes me sad that we can’t fish in the same areas where we used to,” said Empoc, 42, the first mate of a local fishing crew who is in charge of ensuring their boat’s sea-worthiness.

“We used to be able to go there and catch big fishes, making our lives easier. Now, they are driving us away and accusing us of poaching in our waters,” he told BenarNews correspondents, who were visiting Masinloc and other fishing communities in the area.


Fishermen sort their catch after docking their boat in Masinloc, Philippines, May 28, 2021. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

Empoc and other people who inhabit fishing communities such as Masinloc, as well as Infanta and Bani – towns that lie farther up the coast – are feeling the effects of the Chinese presence in contested areas of the waterway.

These Filipino communities live on fishing, and their survival depends on bountiful catches.


A mother and child appear on the dock in the early morning, in the fishing community of Matalvis in Masinloc, Philippines, May 28, 2021. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

According to a local fishermen’s group, Pamalakaya, some 627,000 fishers have lost their livelihood because of Chinese activities in the South China Sea during the past decade.

When BenarNews visited the fishing communities in late May, a flotilla of China Coast Guard ships was stationed in disputed waters, Pamalkaya and local fishermen said. The Chinese ships did not harm the Filipino fishermen, they said, but were blocking their entry into prime fishing grounds.


Crew members of the F/B J-Dan sort their catch of mackerel scad for delivery to a local market, in Matalvis, a fishing village in Masinloc, Philippines, May 28, 2021. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

The Chinese took control of the area in 2012, engaging the Philippine Coast Guard in a stand-off over Scarborough Shoal. Both sides agreed to cool tensions and pull out. The Filipinos withdrew from the area, but the Chinese never left.

In 2013, Manila took the case to an international arbitral tribunal. In a landmark verdict three years later, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and threw out China’s expansive territorial claims in the sea region.


A fishing boat with its meager catch docks in the town of Infanta, on the west coast of Luzon Island, Philippines, May 27, 2021. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]


Boys haul to the dock the day’s catch from a boat after it returned from the South China Sea, in Infanta, Philippines, May 27, 2021. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

However, China has since refused to honor the ruling. And instead of seeking to enforce the ruling, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in the years since has largely sought to appease China instead, in exchange for economic largesse.

In the meantime, despite the ICT’s ruling, China has occupied more areas in the South China Sea.


Fishing boats are moored in Bani, Philippines, May 29, 2021. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

Eric Nabua, head of the fishermen’s cooperative in Infanta, said that about 70 fishing vessels from the town rely on the South China Sea – or the West Philippine Sea, as Manila calls it – for their livelihood.

Now fishermen steer clear of the shoal, and venture farther west to avoid conflict, he said.

“There is no more Karburo fishing for them,” Nabua told BenarNews, using a local name for Scarborough Shoal. “Unless there is political will to get it back. It is already gone. But that area is ours.”


Residents of Olanen, a fishing village in Bani, Philippines, walk on the beach at low tide, May 28, 2021. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

Photos by Jojo Riñoza and Jason Gutierrez
Editing: Kate Beddall, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson, Imran Vittachi
Web page produced by: Minh-Ha Le
Reported and produced by BenarNews
© 2021 BenarNews All Rights Reserved.
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