Vietnamese fishing vessels in West Philippine Sea increasing in number

Sheila Crisostomo - The Philippine Star
Vietnamese fishing vessels in West Philippine Sea increasing in number
Filipino fishermen fetch MV Kapitan Felix Oca at a designated rendezvous point in the West Philippine Sea on December 11, 2023.
Michael Varcas / The Philippine STAR

MASINLOC, Zambales, Philippines — As if constant harassment from the China coast guard were not enough, Filipino fisherfolk now have to deal with the increasing number of Vietnamese fishermen who go about their business in and around Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal without getting confronted or chased away by the Chinese.

The Filipino fishermen aired their plight during an onsite public consultation conducted jointly by the House committee on national defense and security and the special committee on the West Philippine Sea on Friday. The public consultation was part of the panels’ ongoing investigation on the “gentleman’s agreement” between former president Rodrigo Duterte and the Chinese.

Genevieve Buencamino, a fishing boats operator here, said the Vietnamese appear to be in good graces with the Chinese coast guard or maritime militias who would always ignore their presence – and growing number.

In contrast, Filipino fishermen have to deal with Chinese harassment and even threat of harm on a regular basis.

“There are many Vietnamese fishing vessels that are free to come and go in WPS and they have ‘superlights’ which are actually banned in our law,” she added. Superlights are special lamps used to attract fish and members of their food chain to specific areas so they can easily be harvested.

And worse, Buencamino said, Vietnamese are now using nets and intruding into Filipino fishermen’s payao, further depriving the latter of decent catch. “Nothing is left for Filipinos to catch,” she bewailed.

Payao is a traditional fishing device composed of floating rafts of bamboo anchored to the seafloor designed to trap fish. The catch is then harvested using hand-line fishing or surface trolling, among other methods.

She said Filipino fishermen couldn’t understand why the Vietnamese are free to do their trade in Philippine waters while the Filipinos find themselves always restricted.

“Before during bad weather, fishermen could hide in Scarborough but they are no longer allowed to do that. So the fishermen have no choice but to go home, putting their safety at risk,” she added, referring to Bajo de Masinloc by its other name.

During the public consultation, Senior Deputy Speaker and Pampanga Rep. Aurelio Gonzales Jr. bared plans to initiate the creation of an inter-agency panel to thresh out ways of addressing the problems of Filipino fishermen. He did not provide further details.

“The budget season is fast approaching. We heard the fisherfolk, so rest assured that we will form an inter-agency (panel) to have an answer to their requests and grievances,” he said.

Jeoffrey Elad, chairman of the Masinloc Tropical Fish Gatherer’s Association, for his part expressed concerns over the plan of China to implement beginning June 15 its regulation to arrest foreigners and vessels found “trespassing” into what it claims as its territorial seas. Those arrested will be detained for up to 60 days without trial.

Elad said they find the development alarming as they seldom see PCG vessels in areas frequented by Filipino fishermen.

He claimed the only time they see PCG vessels is when they provide escort for supply missions.

He was apparently referring to PCG ships that escort civilian vessels delivering food and other provisions to troops stationed on BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

Iloilo Rep. Raul Tupas, vice-chair of the committee on national defense and security, said the problems besetting Zambales fishermen may require a multi-sectoral or inter-agency approach.

“This is a complex issue, a complex problem so we need the help of many agencies of the government. We need an interagency or even multi-sectoral approach,” Tupas added.

Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers assured fishermen and their families that the House is committed to helping them in any way possible.

Barbers said aside from providing relief assistance, the chamber intends to craft policies that would be beneficial for generations of fisherfolk and to the country in general.

“This is not a problem of this generation alone. If we don’t resolve this soon, this will be the problem of the future generation and we would not want them to blame us that we did not do something for them,” he added.

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