Avoid danger, but do not avoid the place.
This was the advice of the chief of the country’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to fishermen venturing into Panatag (Scarborough Shoal) in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) which China isolated in 2012.
Director Asis Perez of the BFAR said they will not discourage fishermen from going to the shoal to fish, but they should turn back if they see a threat, specifically those coming from the Chinese Coast Guard.
“Let me be very, very clear on the guidance that we’re giving to our fishermen. We are not encouraging our fishermen to venture into areas where there is a conflict. So, it must be made clear from the beginning. I don’t think it’s responsible for government to say, ‘Go ahead and we will support you,’ because we will be putting their lives in danger,” the official, the resource person at Friday’s Malacanang news briefing, said.
“Our prescription in areas where there is conflict is for our fishermen to stay away, to there is conflict is for our fishermen to stay away, to avoid them. That is the policy of BFAR,” Perez pointed out.
But the official made it clear that once Filipinos are harassed or have “come into danger, then, of course, it’s the responsibility of the government to help them.”
“Our fishermen should exercise extreme caution. If they see danger ahead, they should stop. There are times [when]Chinese patrols drive away our fishermen but this doesn’t happen every day. That’s why it’s an advice. Avoid danger, not avoid the place,” he said.
Beijing on Thursday called on the Philippines to “stop all actions infringing [including fishing]upon China’s territorial sovereignty, and rights and interests.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Philippine fishing boats have “no permission” to enter the shoal.
Commenting on the statement, Malacanang deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said Filipino fishermen do not need China’s permission to go to Panatag.
“Obviously, they are hard-pressed to defend their position. It’s obvious that our fishermen do not need permission to fish in our waters. In general, they don’t need to seek permission. That place is ours,” she added.
Meanwhile, Perez clarified that the latest report of “bullying” by Chinese vessels against Filipino fishermen happened some three nautical miles from the Scarborough Shoal.
He noted that the shoal, which has been the subject of conflict between Manila and Beijing since Chinese ships secured the area in 2012, is 137 nautical miles away from the nearest shore and the fishing area where the incident happened is three nautical miles away.
“So, problems can occur only when you get within that three to four nautical miles, so, therefore, there is a wide gap. That’s about 134 nautical miles in between. So as long as you stay within that area, there should be no problem, and we are conducting patrols in that area,” Perez said.
The official added that recognizes the importance of disputed areas in the region to the country’s fisheries requiremenst.
He, however, clarified that while 70 percent of the country’s protein requirements come from the fisheries sector, it does not mean all of them are harvested from the sea.
“About 45 percent come from captured fisheries, consisting of 55 percent from aquaculture, which is mainly inland. There are also those that come from outside. It’s not the entire 70 percent coming from the sea,” Perez explained.
The BFAR head a maintained that the Philippine government is doing the right thing in pursuing its claims over some territories in the Spratlys that are also being claimed by China. He said there are no “lapses” on the side of the Philippine government.
“We are doing the right thing but the other party is doing something wrong. And so, it’s not our lapses,” he pointed out.
On poaching in the disputed areas, Perez said they are doing all they can to address their limitations such as lack of personnel patrolling these areas and adding more ships, besides having a “hotline” with other claimant countries.
“We have coordination with our friends from Vietnam. We have a hotline. We’re about to develop a hotline with Indonesia. I was informed by [Agriculture] Secretary [Proceso] Alcala that they had a meeting with the counterpart from Indonesia. And so, we now have clear coordination,” he added.
The BFAR said damage to corals and other aquatic resources brought about by China’s aggressive reclamation actvities in some parts of the South China Sea is “600 times” worse than the one caused by the grounding of a US warship on Tubbataha Reef in Palawan in 2013.
This alone, according to Perez, makes such activities a global concern.
“In fish production, per se, the effect is coral degradation, the destruction of corals and the fingerlings and fish larvae. It is where they thrive. But the immediate effect is yet to be studied and quantified. As to the degradation itself, the initial data we have through satellite imaging… is 311 hectares,” he said.
At this time, Perez added, the Philippines cannot bill China for the destruction of the marine resources and that it has to wait for the final decision of the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Seas (Itlos) where Manila filed a memorial last year to contest China’s nine-dash line policy.
A memorial in international law means a complaint or a petition for arbitration.
“We cannot at this point speculate on what’s going to be the decision.
And if ever a decision is made, what will be the course of action? It is important to determine the extent of the damage and then later on, collectively, we think about ways and means on how to probably address that destruction,” Perez said.