Filipino groups defy China’s ‘unilateral’, ‘baseless’ fishing ban in South China Sea

‘If we stop fishing here, what would happen to our families?’

By Mong Palatino/Global Voices

Several groups led by Filipino fishers organized a sail mission towards the South China Sea (known locally as West Philippine Sea) last monthto challenge China’s four-month fishing ban.

The annual fishing moratorium took effect on May 1 as China issued a warning that it will detain “trespassers” and other ships intruding on its maritime territories. According to Chinese state media outlets, the 3.5-month yearly fishing ban, which started in 1999, is an effort to “promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology”. During this period, the Chinese Coast Guard stops vessels from any country to catch fish in the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea (SCS). Yet, some analysts believe that China makes use of environmental policy to extend its power to the disputed waters in both East and South China seas.

The Philippine government has protested the “unilateral” ban since the coverage of the order includes waters inside the country’s exclusive economic zone. China is claiming large parts of South China Sea and overlaps with the maritime borders of its neighbors in the region, including the Philippines.

READ MORE: Maritime tension in the South China Sea

Pamalakaya, a fisherfolk organization with nationwide membership, organized the collective fishing expedition as it urged China to “respect the traditional fishing ground of the fishermen.” The group also accused China of being “the biggest pirate in our sea.” Pamalakaya leader Ronnel Arambulo added in a Facebook post shared by Altermidya news network that “there is no better way to assert fishing rights in our exclusive economic zone than to conduct a collective economic activity.”

The sail mission send-off was done in a coastal barangay (village) in Masinloc in Zambales province, located on the western side of Central Luzon in the country’s biggest island. It reached around 20 nautical miles (37 km)  from the coast until the convoy was forced to return because of huge waves. Nevertheless, the mission was declared a success since small fishers were able to assert their right to fish in the West Philippine Sea. The activity was organized without government backing but it was coordinated with municipal and provincial officials.

Jojo Ecijan of Samahang Panatag, a local fisherfolk group, told the media, “If we stop fishing here, what would happen to our families?”

“This is a demonstration of fisherfolk’s opposition to China’s baseless fishing ban that will cover our territory,” said Joey Marabe, a fisherfolk leader in Zambales.

Tatay Gerry, a 54-year-old fisher, told youth activists about the hardships faced by small fishers in the community. The interview was posted on Twitter:

“When China arrived, we were no longer able to venture out to the far waters, we were forced to sail closer to the coast for fear of arrest or what China will do to us.”

Masinloc fishers preparing for the sail mission. Photo by John Carlo Magallon. Source: Altermidya, used with permission

Pamalakaya called for the “demilitarization” of the West Philippines as it demanded the expulsion of Chinese coast guard ships and the ending of the Philippine-United States military exercises. It pointed out that fishers are prevented from going out to the seas every time US and Filipino troops conduct military and naval drills near West Philippine Sea.

Our fishing expedition attests that we can assert our territorial waters without relying on any foreign superpower, more so to provocative militaristic solutions.

The sail mission was supported by Manila-based youth volunteers and activist legislators. A Gabriela partylist legislator, who represents the women sector in the House of Representatives, decried China’s “bullying tactics and unlawful claims” as she also called out the Philippine government for failing to protect local fisherfolk from “relentless harassment by Chinese maritime forces”.

The testimony of local fishers and the sail mission itself disproved the claim made in a Xinhua commentary that the act of willfully ignoring China’s orders is a“provocation” and “driven by unreasonable ambitions.”

Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning defended the directive to detain “trespassers.”

The regulations are rolled out by China Coast Guard to standardize the administrative law-enforcement procedures of Coast Guard agencies and better uphold order at sea. It is consistent with universal practices. Individuals and entities have no need for concern as long as they have not done anything illicit. #

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This report is original to Global Voices, republished by Kodao as part of a content-sharing agreement.