Fri, May 23, 2014 - Page 9 News List

A leviathan turns Philippine fishermen into desperate darters

For decades the fishermen of Masinloc, Philippines, have relied on the rich fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal for their livelihoods. Now they play cat-and-mouse with Chinese patrol vessels and return home with smaller catches

By Floyd Whaley  /  NY Times News Service, MASINLOC, Philippines

Illustration: Mountain People

On a scorching recent afternoon, fishermen from the sleepy Philippine town of Masinloc hauled blocks of ice onto a rickety, wooden fishing boat bobbing just off the shore. By nightfall, the boat would be on its way to coveted fishing grounds, and to a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese coast guard.

The 9m boat, with bamboo outriggers to keep it stable in the often rough waters of the South China Sea, was bound for a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島).

Claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and China, the area has long been the stuff of legend in Masinloc — a haven for blue marlin, red grouper, lobster, skipjack, yellowfin tuna and more.

“In Scarborough, you don’t have to catch the fish,” Jerry Escape, the town’s fisheries officer, said with a grin. “They just swim up to you and greet you and let you take them out of the water.”

Fish tales aside, the beleaguered boatmen in Masinloc have found themselves caught in the middle of a geopolitical fight that their country appears to be losing, at least for now.

For the past two years, the shoal has been controlled by China’s coast guard, and the Philippine fishermen who made their livings there find themselves mostly shut out of fisheries they depended on for decades.

“The fishermen have no choice,” Escape said. “They fish there until the Chinese chase them away.”

The shoal is just one of a number of places in the South China and East China seas caught in a tug-of-war between a rising China claiming vast swaths of resource-rich ocean and the other Asian nations that claim many of the same waters as their own.

This particular conflict came to a head in April 2012, when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching protected coral and giant clams from the area, about 200km off the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon.

A Philippine coast guard ship and several Chinese government ships were locked in a tense standoff for more than a month before the Filipinos withdrew. However, the Chinese ships never left, instead setting up regular patrols to block entry and protecting Chinese fishing boats in the area.

These days, the fishermen of Masinloc return to port with fewer fish and more tales of trying to edge as close to the triangle of azure water as possible to haul in as many fish as they can before they are chased away.

Mario Forones, 54, who returned in late March from a trip, said several of the Chinese ships constantly circled the reef while one planted itself inside, blocking any boats that might get past the first line of defense.

“If you get too close, they come at you in rubber boats and yell in English: ‘Go away! Go away,’” he said.

The Philippine military said that some fishermen have gotten rougher treatment. During a period of prime fishing in January, Chinese ships used water cannons to drive away some of the Philippine boats, officials said.

Though fishermen from more distant parts of the Philippines venture into these waters, they need larger, more expensive vessels to reach the area, load their catch and make it home, so they rely on it less.

However, for the people of Masinloc, the closest point in the Philippines to the shoal, the reef is considered an extension of the village.

From the town, a 9m fishing boat with a single engine can reach the shoal in about 18 hours, which had allowed the small-time fishermen to regularly take in more than a tonne of fish a day, even with their minimal resources.

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