Chito Villarin starts up the engine of his small fishing boat. The 36-year old makes his living by sailing out into the waters of the South China Sea, off Palawan’s west coast, in the hope of bringing back a good catch.
“I catch different types of fish and octopus. I take my boat about 20 kilometers out into the sea”
But Filipino fishermen, like Villarin, aren’t the only ones casting off into these waters.
Foreign poachers are frequently found off the coast of Palawan. And the authorities here are trying to stop them.
I’m now on board a much faster ship operated by the Special Boat Unit of the Philippines National Police.
The United States gave these six boats to the cops to help fight various types of crime, as the unit’s captain Osmundo Salito explains.
“Narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism, piracy, smuggling, poaching and other forms of criminality”
And that has increasingly included catching illegal foreign fishermen.
Anchored at the dock of the Special Boat Unit’s station is a 30-meter long ship. The maritime police say they picked up its crew of 11 Chinese nationals as well as 5 Filipino accomplices while catching endangered sea turtles.
They were found in waters near the Half Moon Shoal in the South China Sea, an area of the Spratly Islands claimed by both the Philippines and China.
Their capture in May prompted an angry response by Beijing, which ordered Manila to hand over the crew and their vessel.
But Filipino authorities pressed charges against the Chinese fishermen. They are now on trial and if convicted, they face between 12 and 20 years in prison for violating protected species law.
This follows a ruling last month, in which a Palawan court found 12 other Chinese fishermen guilty of poaching in a protected coral reef zone. Those men were sentenced to between 6 and 12 years behind bars.
Officials here say that over the past decade, hundreds of Chinese fishermen have been locked up. They used to just be caught with fishing lines and nets, but they’re increasingly becoming more sophisticated.
Alen Rodriguez is Palawan’s chief prosecutor.
“They now have GPS, they now have sonar device. They are into trading; they buy from Filipinos the rare species”
Rodriguez says the authorities are not specifically targeting Chinese fishermen. But he claims all of these men clearly broke Filipino law.
“There is overwhelming evidence and we can just not turn the other way and let them leave. I am confident we will get the conviction”
Tensions are high throughout the South China Sea.
This year, China attempted to build an oil platform in waters claimed by Vietnam.
The Philippines’ navy says Chinese forces try to block its supply ships. And recently, Washington said a Chinese fighter jet confronted one of its own planes in airspace over the sea.
Some observers in Manila say the frequent maritime violations of Chinese fishermen are also an example of Beijing’s territorial expansion plan.
Rafael Alunan, a former Philippines Secretary of the Interior, claims the fishermen are just a proxy for the Chinese military.
“The fishermen are part of the salami slice strategy of China. They are using their fishing fleets, fishermen, their civilian ships, to poach, occupy, reclaim. They’re using their civilian assets and the fishermen are at the vanguard. We’re firming things up. We are showing the Chinese that if you keep on intruding and stepping all over us, we’re going to clamp down. It’s a strong message.”
Beijing’s Foreign Ministry maintains that its fishermen caught by Filipino forces are all in Chinese sovereign territory.
Security concerns aside, the Chinese fishermen also pose a threat to Palawan’s economy and environment, says Grizelda Anda, director of the Environmental Law Assistance Center in Puerto Princesa.
She says while there’s no official tally, its easy to imagine what the foreign poachers are doing to the local ecosystem.
“If you look that he hundreds of marine turtles they’ve gathered and other marine life, that would be in the millions. They maintain the balance there, which is very important to make sure we still have fisheries ad that the coral reefs will not be destroyed, since they are the home of fisheries and other aquatic life. So you can imagine the impact of that damage to the livelihood of the fishing folks of Palawan and elsewhere”
Anda adds that some foreign fishermen used to bribe their way out of legal punishment, but it seems those days are over.
As for the nine Chinese fishermen now on trial, Palawan’s chief prosecutor, Alen Rodriguez, says that if they are convicted, the only way for them to get out of jail is a presidential pardon. But he says that doesn’t seem likely.
“In the past, during the time of President Arroyo, she issued pardon to some Chinese fishermen and were allowed to go home. But under the Aquino administration, I have not heard of such incident at the moment”
Rodriguez expects the trial to conclude by the end of September.
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