Pinoy fishermen amidst the pandemic and China’s aggression

Pinoy fishermen amidst the pandemic and China’s aggression

By Tracy Cabrera

LAST June 12th, Independence Day, defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed how a Chinese vessel rammed and partially sank a Philippine fishing boat near midnight of 9 June, and worse, the Chinese left the Filipino crew stranded in open sea. Hours later, thankfully, Vietnamese fishermen came to help.

A variety of dried fish spread and sold in a fish market. Photo by Benjamin Cuaresma

Just as frustrating as this act of aggression is, our fishermen are already economically distressed due to the onslaught of the ongoing coronavirus global pandemic that has brought the Philippine economy down to its knees—resulting from the dwindling economic activity caused by the lockdowns and quarantine measures aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 or Covid-19.

Data consistently show that Filipino fisher folk are some of the poorest people in our economy. Despite a reduction in poverty incidence from 2006, about one in 3 fishermen is still considered poor as of 2015.

A group of men will have grilled fish, their fresh catch for the day.
Photo by Benjamin Cuaresma

A recent findings by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies show that fisher folk are among the most economically ‘vulnerable,’ that is, likely to fall into poverty in the future.

In 2015, a third of fishermen were deemed ‘highly vulnerable’ while more than half were ‘relatively vulnerable’. Vulnerability in the fishing industry comes from many fronts, most notably over-fishing.

Open access to fishing grounds induces fishers to capture as many fish as they could, thus depleting fish stocks rapidly. Add to these the continued encroachment of Chinese fishing vessels that harvest our sea’s bounty using trawlers, and at times these fishermen are bullied into surrendering their catch to the more equipped Chinese.

Moreover, the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ in this situation stems from ill-crafted and poorly-enforced fishing laws and regulations. For example, catching young fish is not prohibited by our laws. Unsafe and pernicious methods like cyanide fishing also often go unpunished because government spends relatively meager resources on maritime law enforcement.

Unless government looks into the over-fishing issue soon, more and more Filipino fishermen will resort to bad fishing methods and head out to farther fishing grounds like the West Philippine Sea just to haul a good catch.

Over-fishing also puts our fishermen directly into the path of the Chinese navy and militia now encroaching our territories and exploiting our natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in areas like Panatag Shoal or Reed Bank. This practice and their constant presence in the area could compound our fishermen’s poverty and vulnerability.

The June 9th incident is the worst aggression of what is believed by some to be the Chinese militia against a Filipino vessel. Yet it is by no means unique. Between 2014 and 2018, China also rammed Vietnamese vessels at least a dozen times, often near the Paracel Islands. Past aggressions against our fishermen, however, helped us win our case against China in the arbitration tribunal in The Hague.

The Chinese have also dealt catastrophic, incalculable, and permanent damage to our natural resources and marine ecosystems in the West Philippine Sea. They have routinely used blast fishing to harvest giant clams and sea turtles. They also dredged—and continue to dredge—coral reefs to construct artificial islands on our reefs. What nature took millennia—even millions of years—to build, the Chinese undid it in just a couple of years.

According to a previous director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, China’s incursions have caused “a deep sense of fear among Filipino fishermen” and “significantly curtailed their fishing activities and severely impacted their ability to earn a livelihood.”

Coincidentally, the total volume of marine municipal fishing production dropped by 11.2 percent from 2012 to 2017. The value of such output, meanwhile, grew by a measly 0.2 percent.

Sure, these aggregate changes may be caused by factors other than Chinese aggression, but for many Filipino fishermen forced out of their traditional fishing grounds, China’s aggression has invariably depressed their livelihoods and incomes. Some fishermen in Zambales were forced to take on land-based jobs like security guards, while others were forced to retire early.

Unless the Duterte government strongly condemns Chinese aggression and ward off the Chinese navy and militia from our waters, our fishermen will always be and will remain vulnerable—despite the ‘fist pump’ they often manifest to show their courage to survive. We find this, however, hypocritical because the fist pump is meant to evoke Duterte’s famed “tapang at malasakit” (courage and compassion)—the supposed traits that catapulted him to the presidency in 2016—but will this be enough? (IA/DS)

Featured photo: Look, ma, two big squids! A boy has squids he could bring home. Photo by Benjie Cuaresma

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