MASINLOC, PHILIPPINES - Philippine fishermen along the front lines of a bitterly contested tract of the South China Sea say fishing stocks are declining partly because of unstoppable intrusions from Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese competitors.
The number of fish has fallen about 50 percent since 2010 off the coast of Masinloc, the Philippine city closest to Scarborough Shoal, contested by Manila and Beijing since 2012, according to Franklin Cattigay, the local Philippine Coast Guard commander.
The problems in an already poor archipelago dependent largely on the sea may add pressure on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to cement a new friendship with China, following Beijing’s pledge of $24 billion in aid and investment in October, or to invite the U.S. navy back to continue joint coastal patrols against foreign vessels.
China effectively controls access to the 150-square-kilometer shoal, a prime fishing ground 198 kilometers away from Masinloc.
Boats from China, Taiwan and Vietnam use “illegal” techniques such as explosives and bright nighttime lights to draw fish said Cattigay .
“Vessels from China are roaming there and they are not authorizing the Philippines to go there,” he said as he gestured into the South China Sea just west of his outdoor workspace next to the major Masinloc fish market. “Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, they are all there.
“Nowadays fish is not [like] before, it’s fairly limited because of so many people using illegal fishing, most especially the other countries using super lights,” he said.
Declining stocks plus pressure from China have prompted many of city’s roughly 3,000 registered fishermen to fan out along the Philippine coast or try to make it on catches of smaller fish. Nationwide, millions of people live off the sea.
Just three 40-person Philippine vessels from Masinloc, a city of 49,000 people, regularly trawl around Scarborough Shoal, said a city government fisheries staff person who did not want to be identified. The city doesn’t tell them to stay away from Scarborough Shoal but a lot avoid it anyway because of the risks, he said.
China has two patrol boats at the shoal and bars Filipinos from entry, fishermen say. China began occupying Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcropping visible above the waves, in 2012 after a tense standoff with the Philippines that soured relations until Duterte took office in June.
China claims more than 90 percent of the wider South China Sea. Some of that claim clashes with a Philippine exclusive economic zone from Masinloc’s Luzon Island south to Palawan.
Taiwan also calls the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer resource-rich sea its own. Vietnam has a smaller claim, but like China has landfilled some of the sea’s islets near fisheries and undersea fossil fuel exploration sites.
Vietnamese fishing boats have been seen near the Philippine coast about 48 km offshore, the city staff person said.
“Two hours into the sea are Vietnamese, five boats finding octopus and fish, two hours, there,” said Roy Sevilla, 34, a Masinloc fisherman of 20 years as he pointed northwest from his boat moorage under a dilapidated pier.
Other people along the clear waters and mangrove tree-lined coasts of Masinloc work in groups to gut, dry and sell fish just a few inches long rather than prizes such as tuna or lapu lapu. On Tuesday, vendors at the public market were selling mainly small squid and eels.
Fishing closer to the coast of the city northwest of Manila fetches just three tons of fish per trip, down from the 10 to 15 tons he would expect from Scarborough Shoal, veteran fisherman Butch Ortega said.
“We have the Chinese patrol, so we cannot go,” said Ortega as he stood knee deep in the water tending to a boat.
Duterte’s engagement with China, he believes, has not covered access to Scarborough.
Last month the president said his country had no way of fighting China if it went ahead with plans reported by Chinese media to build a monitoring station on the shoal. He also has not moved on a proposal announced last year to declare the shoal a marine sanctuary.
From May through August, Beijing is scheduled to declare a fishing moratorium over much of the sea. Masinloc locals say they’re unlikely to observe it and that China does not now turn their boats away from disputed tracts outside the shoal.
But Chinese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels may overwhelm the sea in ways that Southeast Asian claimants cannot “hope to match,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Philippines, the island of Borneo and the Natuna Islands of Indonesia would feel Chinese enforcement of the moratorium, Poling said. Malaysia and Brunei compete with China for rights to tracts of the sea north of Borneo.
“They’ll be swamping waters off the coast of Borneo and off the Natunas and then they’ll also presumably be pushing the Philippines out of places like the Scarborough Shoal,” he said. “What the Chinese want here is for the Southeast Asians to just stop resisting, just accept the new world order in Asia centered around China and China’s historic rights.”
An association of fishing boats from Zambales province, including Masinloc, have drafted a resolution to Duterte, the coast guard commander said. They want the president to let U.S. naval vessels resume helping the Philippines, which is militarily weaker than China, patrol the coastlines.
The coast guard alone lacks resources to patrol for foreign boats, he said, advocating more help from Washington. Filipino fisherman also use illegal techniques to catch fish, he added.
A stronger friendship with China may generate more aid and investment for the Philippines, analysts in Manila say, but may ultimately anger Filipinos who want their leader to safeguard national territory.