Confrontation with Chinese militia in West Philippine Sea slashes Filipino fisherfolk income 

The world is seeing high seas drama in the disputed West Philippine Sea, parts of the South China Sea that are included in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which has escalated in recent years due to China’s aggressive actions. 

The conflict has slashed the income of fisherfolk as they no longer have the same freedom of access to their traditional fishing grounds as they used to have. With the Chinese militia chasing them away, and Chinese fishing vessels moving in to fish, effectively engaging in illegal fishing in the Philippines’ sovereign waters in the EEZ.

Filipino fishermen are thus forced to find their livelihood in the open sea, which costs more fuel and less certainty of catching fish, leaving fisherfolks in a vicious cycle of debt. 

Despite existing regulations such as Fisheries Code (RA 8550) and Local Government Code (RA 7160), which stipulate the local government units from coastal municipalities and cities have the mandate to protect the rights of fisherfolk in the preferential use of the municipal waters, illegal commercial fishing is among the major threats in municipal waters apart from overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and coastal development.

The Philippines’ maritime domain encompasses its municipal waters, territorial/internal waters, and EEZ – which is seven times larger than its terrestrial area.

56-year-old fisherman Rony Drio is living in San Salvador Island in the Masinloc municipality. He told Context News that it is becoming more difficult and dangerous to continue fishing due to China’s aggressive actions in the disputed shoal. Speedboats and water cannons are used to block them from having access to the fishing area inside the EEZ. China seized the fishing area in 2012. 

The Scarborough Shoal, locally known as Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag, translates to a Filipino word for “peaceful”. However, the calmness of the waters has changed drastically over time. 

Declining fish stock and resupply missions

In the past two decades, fish stock has declined by 66 to 75 percent. Sea Around Us’ Annual Fish Catch’s data in the West Philippine Sea showed that it increased in 2010 by 732,110 tons but has been declining since then. Oceana said to Maritime Fairtrade that artisanal fisheries’ overexploitation of fish stocks is due to the open access nature of the fisheries, the increase in coastal population, poverty, and poor governance. 

Currently, fish stock has declined by five percent. The Philippines National Stock Assessment Program’s data showed most of the fish stocks in the West Philippine Sea are now overfished, meeting its limit of reference points for their health status. In 2019, the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute estimated that the country is losing about P33.1 billion (US$681.4 million) annually due to reef ecosystem damage in the disputed area.

“Though the West Philippine Sea is a major source of galunggong (round scad), the declining catch has pushed the Philippines to import galunggong to meet the local demand. With the loss of corals, important food fish species such as lapu-lapu and maya-maya will be extinct in the destroyed reefs because they have no habitat left,” said Attorney Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana’s vice president.

LAYAG-WPS rolls out for fisherfolks

In April, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) launched the fisherfolk project, Livelihood Activities to Enhance Fisheries Yields and Economic Gains from the West Philippine Sea (LAYAG-WPS), in Zambales, to support Filipino fishing communities. It taps resource-rich fishing grounds and rolls out fisheries livelihood opportunities in Ilocos, Central Luzon, and MIMAROPA (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan).

“To our local fishermen, I extend my sincere gratitude for your efforts to secure not only your livelihood but also the food security of our country. You are the pillar of the blue economy or the sustainable use of the ocean resources for the growth of our economy and the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems of our seas,” said Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel, Jr., Department of Agriculture.

Livelihood inputs such as gillnets were given to about 100 fisherfolk while 50 women fisherfolk received post-harvest training and implements. BFAR gave 62-footer Fiber Reinforced Plastic vessels equipped with modernized fishing equipment to several chosen fisherfolk associations in Central Luzon and Ilocos.

Fisherfolks in the LAYAG-WPS program. Photos credit: BFAR

The fight against IUU fishing

In June, the Department of Agriculture’s BFAR and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged to strengthen their alliance in fighting against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing). BFAR’s Officer-in-Charge Director Isidro Velayo, Jr. and USAID Philippines Environment Office Deputy Director Thomas Kaluzny held a ceremony on the International Day for the Fight against IUU Fishing on June 5.

BFAR and USAID co-developed the Fisheries Sharing Hub on Investigation, Enforcement, Litigation and Detection System (FishSHIELDS) to complement the international organization’s Sustainable Interventions for Biodiversity, Oceans and Landscapes (SIBOL) project. 

The latest 2023 Philippine IUU Fishing Report highlighted the urgent need for the country to have continuous monitoring and implement robust policy measures for IUU fishing threats. Local law enforcement officers will have access to digital tools to address IUU fishing incidents and reports. The two partners also rolled out I-FIT (through the Fish Right Program) to help assess, analyze, and plan responses to IUU fishing in the country.

“Both tools strengthen the government’s capacity to reduce risks to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and we are presently mainstreaming their use in our regular operations, as well as other official development assistance such as the Philippine Fisheries and Coastal Resiliency Project or the FishCoRe,” said Velayo.

Oceana’s Ramos added that it is vital to establish specific areas in the West Philippine Sea, particularly the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal, as Marine Protected Areas. There should be implementation of measures on effective monitoring, control, and surveillance tools and mechanisms in compliance with international agreements (International Plan of Action Against IUU Fishing). These will help address IUU fishing by greatly reducing the negative impacts in the area. 

“Oceana through technology, monitors fishing activities in the West Philippine Sea. I presented at the 10thInternational Conference on Fisheries and Aquaculture last 2023, ‘Using Technology to Track Apparent Illegal Fishing in the Philippines’, and showed that technology like AIS, Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) to monitor IUU fishing activities in the West Philippine Sea,” Ramos added.

For example, the Karagatan Patrol Platform shares data on satellite boat detection showing vessels using strong lights or fish attractors that are easily detected at night. The map shows cumulative detection from January 2024 which is used to pinpoint the specific hotspots where an aggregation of vessels is possibly fishing. All vessels should comply with VMS requirements so they can be effectively monitored and identified.

Ramos further added that implementing harvest control rules and measures via the Fisheries Management Area system can help fish stocks recover in the West Philippine Sea. As a member of the Scientific Advisory Group of Fisheries Management Area 5, Oceana analyzed the status of stocks in the area. Currently, Oceana is developing Harvest Control Rules and Measures to rebuild stocks in the West Philippine Sea. 

Karagatan Patrol Platform. Photo credit: Oceana

Resupply mission continues

Resupply missions by the government and non-governmental organizations have been ongoing to support the affected fisherfolks in the disputed territories, despite the ongoing harassment of China. Recently, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that Chinese Coast Guard seized and dumped food supplies meanted for Filipino soldiers at the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. BFAR announced plans to add bigger BFAR fishing vessels to help support municipal fisherfolk fishing in the West Philippine Sea.

“There is no reason for the government to stop providing support in the West Philippine Sea as it is within our EEZ. No foreign countries can stop us in our legitimate undertakings in the waters of the Philippines. We extend our monitoring in international waters covered by our exclusive economic zone. As far as BFAR is concerned, for this year, we have allotted more than P3 billion for the regulatory and law enforcement programs of the bureau,” said BFAR spokesman Nasser Briguera to Inquirer News.

Top photo credit: BFAR. Fisherfolks in the LAYAG-WPS program.

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