MASINLOC, ZAMBALES, Philippines - The stand-off between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea is not just about disputed oil-rich territory. It is also about fish and other aquatic resources that are increasingly scarce. As politicians attempt to resolve the conflict, fishermen from both sides, trying to make a living, are caught in the middle.
As a storm approaches, Filipino fishermen in Masinloc work together to pull their boats out of the water.
About 2,000 families here depend on the sea to make a living, but the spat with China at rich fishing grounds in the Scarborough Shoals has taken a toll on their income.
Miguel Bitana says in just a few days at the disputed Shoals he could earn what took him a week or more fishing in local waters.
“There really is a depletion of fish," said Bitana. "It's getting scarcer. That's also one thing that makes us feel bad, that fishing is banned in there but why are the Chinese still fishing there? Why is it that we Filipinos are not allowed to even go there?”
Meanwhile, declining fish stocks around Hong Kong waters have forced fishermen there to venture further into disputed territories, risking conflict and confrontation.
Pang Wah-kan is Chairman of the Joint Committee of Hong Kong Fishermen’s organizations.
“We started fishing in the South China Sea in the 1960s," said From then on, several cases are reported that Filipino authorities detained our fishermen and ships and fined them. Some were detained and even confiscated by Malaysian authorities as well.”
The stand-off started in April when a Philippines Navy ship tried to arrest Chinese fishermen for allegedly harvesting endangered species of sharks and coral.
Chinese surveillance boats intervened and the two sides have since engaged in a war of words.
Nestor Daet is head of a Masinloc fishermen’s watch group that monitors for illegal fishing.
“I think our government sent about two ships, four? And the other are Philippines coast guard, I think," said Daet. "But, compared to the Naval ships of Chinese we are no match. It's like David and Goliath.”
Fishermen on both sides say their governments need to come to an agreement so they can all make a living.
“We should help each other to protect our seas so that ...we can return the stocks, the fish stocks of the sea,” said Jerry Escape, an officer with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Masinloc.
Despite the stand-off, fishermen here say relations with Chinese fishermen have always been so friendly that in the past they would often barter with each other when fishing far from shore.
They hope that tradition continues next fishing season at the disputed Scarborough Shoals.