LIMA, Peru: President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to declare the lagoon in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal a marine sanctuary where neither Filipino nor Chinese will be allowed to fish, a Cabinet official said on Monday.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said Duterte informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of his plan during their bilateral meeting on Saturday at the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit here.
“The President has decided to declare that as a sanctuary. That is a unilateral action from government,” Esperon told reporters. The lagoon, which he said was “as big as Quezon City, is a spawning area for fish and needs to be protected.
“No fishing there. In fact, as far as I know, there had even been seasons when they would close it. To us that’s good but what is important now is we are coming up with an instrument in the form of a marine protected area declaration,” he said.
Esperon said the President plans to issue an executive executive order unilaterally declaring the lagoon a marine sanctuary.
Esperon said Duterte and Xi also discussed “maritime arrangements” including joint Coast Guard patrols in Panatag shoal, which will lead to “demilitarization” of the area.
“The implication and the effect of this is that there will be more coast guard-to-coast guard relations in areas like Scarborough and, of course, in other areas of the South China Sea, West Philippine Sea,” the official said.
Asked about how Xi responded to Duterte’s statement, Esperon said the Chinese leader’s reply was along the lines of “an agreement that is not part of an agreement.”
“It was a very oriental response,” he said. “What is very clear now is there is an expression of appreciation from the President of his satisfaction in knowing that our fishermen can fish in Scarborough as is naturally done or traditionally done.”
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, who was also at the meeting, said Xi’s reply to Duterte’s proposal was: “We will mobilize government forces to promote our agreements, step up guidance to create a favorable environment.”
“That was what he said after Presidente Duterte talked about his unilateral declaration to turn the Scarborough lagoon into a marine sanctuary,” Andanar said.
Former president Fidel Ramos backed Duterte’s plan to declare the Panatag lagoon a marine sanctuary.
Ramos, who was the administration’s special envoy to China, said restricting fishing activities at the area was one of their “first options.”
“[Declaring Panatag as marine sanctuary] is the highest form of aquaculture preservation, a sanctuary, where the mother fish spawn and that it would therefore be protected perpetually. But the fishing can be made outside the limits of the shoal itself,” Ramos told reporters in a news conference.
“There are other lower levels of fishery protection like a marine park or a seasonal fishing area but the sanctuary is the highest form of protected environmental asset in the definition of the United Nations,” he added.
Maritime experts, however, said the Philippines should consult China as well as other countries who also have the right to fish there before imposing any arrangement.
They pointed out that a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, The Netherlands stated that Panatag was a traditional fishing ground not only of Filipino and Chinese fishermen, but also of other Asian countries.
“In the world, it is recognized that both the Philippines and China and other countries have traditional fishing rights in the Scarborough and these traditional fishing rights has to be respected by other parties so if any party enforced actions that are not in conformity with the Unclos, then it would be in violation of international law,” Dr. Pham Lan Dung, director of Foreign Service Training Center at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, noted.
Unclos refers to the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans.
Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said a multilateral approach is the right way to handle the fishing issue at Panatag.
“In order to regulate fishermen from various nationalities, you need arrangements where each one of those countries can benefit from,” Batongbacal said.
Fishermen in Bataan are not opposed to the President’s plan to declare the lagoon off limits to them.
“Kung pagbabawalan sa loob ng triangle, OK lang, basta payagan lamang kami na mangisda sa paligid (If we are not allowed inside the triangle, that’s okay, as long as we can fish outside the lagoon),” F/B Kim Eurich captain Diogenes Corceles said.
Corceles and his men were the first who went fishing in the shoal after Duterte’s state visit to China. He said there were six boats from the Chinese Coastguard in the shoal but they were not shooed away.
Flordeliza Salota, president of the 500-strong Sisiman Fishing Operators Association, also sees no problem if Panatag shoal was declared a marine sanctuary.
“We trust the President. He knows what is good for Filipino fishermen,” she said.
Salota said their bigger problem are the Vietnamese fishermen who use nets and catch even the small fish.