Subic fishermen protest fishing ban at Panatag lagoon :: Marine sanctuary planned at disputed shoal

Panatag lagoon to be a marine sanctuary.



The road to smooth and trouble-free governance has always been fraught with local problems due to the perceptions of those who have traditionally been exploiting the natural resources of the country.
Brief recent history
So also is the case with Scarborough Shoal that is an area that abounds with a perennial supply of fish that keeps their livelihood intact. The shoal known as Panatag in the local lingo has a triangular lagoon that is the ideal place for setting up a marine sanctuary as envisaged by President Duterte.
It is a well-known fact that fishermen from the coastal town of Subic in Zambales Province had been traditionally been exploiting the riches of this rich area and living a life of abundance till the waters were seized by China in 2012; they were deprived of their livelihood by the Chinese Coast Guard ships that drove them away on the pretext that the waters belonged historically to China leading to the running territorial disputes that China has been having in the South China Seas and other areas.
The fishermen could not carry on their fishing activities and most of them moved to other professions due to the might of the Chinese that they could not match; but, the historic judgment of the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Seas (ITLOS), on being approached by the Government of the Philippines, delivered a judgment that set to rest all and any explanations and claims by the Chinese.
Most of the Chinese claims were nullified while some Filipino claims were also turned down due to proper reasoning and explanations that were dismissed logically by the tribunal’s arguments.
Current scenario
It was the result of some clever diplomatic initiatives adopted by the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte that culminated in some favorable lenience by the Chinese and the panatag shoal was once again under Filipino control though their Coast Guards did keep a close eye on the activities of the Filipino fishermen; that was last month.
But, the government of the Philippines had other plans for their new-found shoal; they want to utilize the natural heritage of the area to install a marine sanctuary that will make it a tourist attraction while preserving the environment. The shoal happens to be at a distance of 240 Km from Zambales.
But, the locals are up in arms and want to exploit the waters for their own profits; the argument, though not very reasonable, is that they would be losing their traditional sources of livelihood, an argument dispelled by the last five years of occupation by the Chinese.
Tirso Atiga, the President of the Calapandayan Fishermen’s Multipurpose Cooperative makes a weak argument when he states that he did not understand as to why the government wanted to ban the exploitation of the waters when the livelihood of so many people depended on it; he conveniently forgets that the same fishermen survived the last five years of Chinese domination and could not fish in the waters there.
Quite a selfish argument though he hastens to add that it would be better if the locals were enrolled to prevent uncontrolled destructive fishing and poaching activities.
Environmentalists however opine that this was just a silly argument to get access to the fishing waters and it would do untold damage once life was normal and the malpractices started.
Not much can be said for this argument by the fishermen since no one can monitor the nefarious activities that have traditionally been detrimental to the interests of the nation.
The President Mr. Duterte mentioned that he would be issuing an executive order proclaiming the setting up of a marine sanctuary in the triangular lagoon and there will be no access provided to any fishermen whether Chinese or Filipino; this would also ensure that there was no poaching or degradation of the environment.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr informed newsmen that the proposal to convert this area into a marine sanctuary was thoroughly discussed between the Chinese President and President Duterte when they last met during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Peru last week.
Xi Jinping offered full support to the Philippines in carrying this project forward.
Artiga followed up his arguments with saying that, while the fishermen will lose access to these fertile waters, China and other nations might still not recognize the marine sanctuary.
It is estimated that about 2000 fishermen’s families will be displaced from Zambales Province as per Edwin Arcelao, president of Samahang Zambaleñong Mangingisda. The artificial reefs and the shoal is their primary fishing grounds, he said.
The Chinese Coast Guards that were driving away Filipino fishermen till Oct. 25 suddenly stopped preventing fishing by the Filipino fishermen in the henceforth disputed areas around the shoal.
On that particular day, things were a little different; the imposing presence of six Chinese vessels in the backdrop was a bit threatening as usual but there was no attempt to prevent fishing by the Filipinos to proceed to the Scarborough Shoal and indulge in harvesting the rich waters for fish that is available in abundance there.
The eight groups of fishermen who had dared to go to Panatag shoal were pleasantly surprised when the Chinese did not make any threatening moves to dissuade them from fishing in their traditional waters.
The Chinese vessels maintained their distance while two of them were guarding the mouth of the shoal; the news spread like wildfire and the Filipinos rejoiced the return of their traditional fishing grounds signaling the victory of diplomacy and perseverance led by the magnetic President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte who dared the Chinese while extending a hand of cooperation and friendship despite the differences that have existed between the two neighbors since centuries due to the territorial claims and counterclaims.

Written for: Lars-Magnus Carlsson Thursday, 24 November 2016