MASINLOC, Zambales: Fishermen from Subic, the southernmost of town of Zambales, up to Santa Cruz town in the north and the Pangasinan province began sailing their boats on Wednesday evening to Panatag Shoal, a traditional rich fishing ground in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
President Rodrigo Duterte, coming from his recent state visit to China, had announced that Filipino fishermen can soon go back to fishing at the shoal.
Filipino fishermen have waited for months as ships of the Chinese Coast Guard remained posted at Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal preventing them from going inside its lagoon.
Driven away by the Chinese after every attempt to fish in the area, many boats have decided to stay away and adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Others opted for other sources of livelihood but insisted to return to fishing and said their lack of income has caused their children to quit school.
Government officials, including the governor of Zambales, have advised the fishermen to refrain from going to Panatag Shoal to avoid trouble, even as aninternational court recognized the Philippines’ rights to fish there.
Fishermen from the fishing village of Sisiman in Mariveles, Bataan lauded the good news of the President and said they were rushing the repair of their fishing boats and getting ready to sail anytime.
Flordeliza Salota, president of the 500-strong Sisiman Fishing Operators Association, said they are raring to go back to the contested shoal after months of having no income.
Panatag Shoal is located some 230 kilometers off the coast of Zambales and was a common fishing ground of Filipino, Chinese and even Vietnamese fishermen until it was occupied by the Chinese Navy after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy in 2012.
The Philippines challenged China’s claims to Panatag Shoal and Spratly islands in the South China Sea before the International Arbitration Court at The Hague, The Netherlands.
On July 12 this year, the international tribunal ruled China’s claim has no basis in international law.
The decision also stated that China violated the Philippines’ right to fish and explore for resources in waters within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
China, which refused to take part in the arbitration, also rejected the ruling and maintained its occupation of Panatag Shoal and in all other islands in the Spratlys.
In September this year, Filipino fishermen were again driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard and only allowed them access to the lagoon under limited fishing hours.