Philippines probes Chinese cyanide fishing in disputed South China Sea waters

The Philippine government is currently investigating claims made by Filipino fishermen that foreign fishers were using cyanide to fish in Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). According to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), it was deeply concerned by the fishermen’s report, but the Chinese Embassy in Manila denied the allegations and labeled them as “sheer fabrications”.

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“This information is from reports of our fishermen in the area. It is deeply concerning, and we will be validating and investigating the issue,” BFAR told Maritime Fairtrade in an email. 

The agency noted that recent deployments at Bajo de Masinloc found the lagoon heavily damaged, potentially due to cyanide fishing by Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen. Cyanide, according to BFAR, is a noxious or poisonous substance which, when used in fishing, stupefies, disables, or renders unconscious fish and other marine species, and is detrimental to the coral reefs and other marine organisms.

“Under Section 92 of the Philippine Fisheries Code, the use of this chemical in fishing is strictly prohibited and fishers found liable for its actual use in fishing may face administrative penalties or criminal charges according to the Code,” BFAR warned.

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general of the National Security Council (NSC) and spokesperson for the National Task Force West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), previously stated that the agency directed BFAR to complete documentation of the incident to enable them to build a case.

“The NSC has indeed already advised the BFAR to validate the claim of the fisherfolk, and our agency is now acting in abidance with the directive,” BFAR said when asked about the updates of the command. 

“We note that the claim of Filipino fisherfolk in Bajo de Masinloc is concerning; the government takes caution in addressing the issue, which means that we will initiate all the necessary steps to investigate and ensure that it is backed by concrete evidence. Right now, our initial step is to gather affidavits from the fisherfolk claiming that they have witnessed said illegal practices.” 

Aerial surveillance at Bajo De Masinloc by the Philippine Coast Guard. Photo credit: Philippine Coast Guard.

Fishers’ group urges action against Chinese fishers

Filipino fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) criticized the government’s alleged inaction towards the destructive activities of foreign vessels in Philippine waters. Under the amended Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, it is illegal for any foreign entity to engage in fishing or operate any fishing vessel within Philippine waters.

PAMALAKAYA claimed that Filipino fishermen have consistently reported China’s use of cyanide, yet both past and present administrations have allegedly neglected to take action to prevent the depletion of Philippine fisheries.

“There should be no exceptions or delays. The BFAR should immediately confront and file charges against all Chinese fishing vessel personnel found in the West Philippine Sea,” PAMALAKAYA national chairperson Fernando Hicap said.

Reacting to PAMALAKAYA’s accusation about the poor enforcement of anti-poaching laws, BFAR said: “In its full capacity as the government agency mandated to ensure that the Philippine Fisheries Code (Republic Act 8550 as amended by RA 10654) is effectively enforced, the BFAR is relentlessly implementing its Fisheries Regulatory Program and intensified campaign against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which includes poaching, in the Philippine waters.”

“This mandate is shared with partner national government law enforcement authorities and the local government units,” it emphasized.

A BFAR patrol vessel. Photo credit: BFAR

Senator pushes for probe

Meanwhile, Senator Francis Tolentino has introduced Senate Resolution 938, aiming to direct the appropriate Senate committee to conduct an investigation in support of legislative action concerning the reported cyanide fishing activities at Bajo de Masinloc.

Tolentino emphasized the urgency of investigating these allegations, saying that they not only lead to the destruction of the marine ecosystem but also undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Philippines. He expressed deep concern over the damage to 21,000 acres of coral reefs, labeling the use of cyanide as “environmental terrorism”.

The senator, who currently chairs the Special Committee on Maritime Zones, said several international agreements were violated and can be used as a basis to hold those responsible for the damages. He cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

“The conventions that I have mentioned earlier can be utilized in filing cases. If we have enough evidence, they can award us the damages incurred,” he said.

In late February, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. expressed openness to pursue legal action against the alleged cyanide fishing perpetrators. He affirmed the government’s commitment to take legal steps against Chinese fishermen if substantial evidence supports claims of cyanide fishing activities at Bajo de Masinloc.

Marcos said: “If we feel that there is enough ground to do so, we will,” when asked if he intends to file a case against Chinese fishers. He noted previous cases of cyanide fishing in the Philippines and an increasing prevalence, heightening concerns.

“I do know that there (have been) cases of cyanide fishing before even here in the Philippines, but I think the reason that it has been more alarming is that it has become more prevalent,” he added.

A BFAR patrol vessel. Photo credit: MaxDefense Philippines 

Verifying claims

As part of efforts to verify whether Chinese fishermen used cyanide in areas of Bajo de Masinloc, a legal team is scheduled to record testimonies from fishermen in the area, according to BFAR.

“The claim is not yet conclusive. That is why the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources continues to investigate and coordinate with other agencies,” BFAR spokesperson Nazario Briguera said during a public briefing.

“Now, we are organizing the team from our legal department. Our personnel will talk to the fishermen and get their statements, and affidavits,” Briguera added.

A BFAR patrol vessel. Photo credit: MaxDefense Philippines 

More patrols 

BFAR has intensified its maritime patrols in the area, to ensure the safety of local fishermen and assert its presence in disputed waters.

“The BFAR continues to deploy its ships in Bajo de Masinloc in participation with the regular rotational deployment led by the Philippine National Security Council and the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, which started this month,” BFAR said.

“Since its first deployment, our ships had always successfully fulfilled their resupply missions to provide aid such as fuel, food, and medicine to Filipino fishers in the area. Moreover, we believe that our presence in the disputed area is crucial not only in ensuring the safety but also boosting the morale of our fisherfolk as they conduct fishing activities to earn their living.”

To address illegal fishing practices, BFAR said it works closely with the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy, the local government units, and other law enforcement groups.

“We conduct joint seaborne patrol operations not only in the West Philippine Sea, but also in other fishing waters of the country using our floating assets composed of monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) vessels, as well as smaller patrol boats.”

BFAR also emphasized that they are doing their best to uphold the welfare of the Filipino fisherfolk in the West Philippine Sea, “especially in the aspect of sustainably harnessing our fisheries and aquatic resources in this resource-rich waters.”

Furthermore, the agency said it allocated approximately P2.55 billion (US$45.5 million) in this year’s budget for the procurement of two units of MCS vessels and a food boat, the operationalization of the Integrated Marine Environment Monitoring System (IMEMS), and the implementation of an Information Systems Strategic Plan (ISSP) to enhance MCS activities in the area.

Watch the video here.

Top photo credit: Philippine Coast Guard. Aerial surveillance at Bajo De Masinloc by the Philippine Coast Guard.

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