MASINLOC: As the fading sun empties itself out into the sea, Captain Elmer Bari begins setting up his bangka (boat) to get ready for a fishing trip to Scarborough Shoal, or Panatag Shoal as the Filipinos call it.
His crew rolls the barrels of petrol on board and fills the huge styrofoam boxes with ice for any potential fish that can be caught. He goes on the trip with hope but apprehension, not sure whether the 15-hour one-way journey will leave him empty-handed.
The Scarborough Shoal he used to know and fish in for nearly 20 years has now become a distant memory. In order to reach the fertile fishing grounds of his happier fishing days, he now has to enter under the cloak of darkness, scuttling behind the three huge Chinese coast guard boats and use only the smallest, discreet boat making his long journey there in rough seas.
Captain Bari is one of the thousands of fishermen living in the sleepy fishing village of Masinloc who have felt the brunt of the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
On Jul 12, a long-awaited ruling from an international tribunal in the Hague on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea overwhelmingly backed the Philippines on the majority of the 15 points it contested, ruling that rocky outcrops claimed by China – some of which are exposed only at low tide – cannot be used as the basis of territorial claims.
Furthermore, the tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in those waters by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration and by constructing artificial islands.
The tribunal ruled that both China and the Philippines had the rights to fish in the seas beside the shoal – a fertile fishing ground that has provided a livelihood for fishermen from China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines for generations.
From the very beginning, China has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the case and has more recently angrily rejected the verdict, stating it is illegal and that it will not change its approach to its claims in the South China Sea.
HOW TERRITORIAL DISPUTE GOT HEATED
Located 120 nautical miles from the shore of Masinloc, Scarborough Shoal was once populated with fishermen from across Asia. Filipino fishermen tell stories of days when they would trade fresh water for petrol with Vietnamese fishermen, or offer their freshly-caught fish for water with the Chinese.
A three-day fishing trip to the shoal would bring back a haul of around 30 tonnes of seafood, earning them 40,000 pesos a trip and they could rest for the remainder of the week before making the trip out there.
This all changed as the territorial dispute became heated. Tensions between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal can be traced to 2012, when the Philippine Navy nabbed eight Chinese fishing vessels for poaching there, which led to a standoff. Since then, Filipino fishermen have been routinely chased away by Chinese coast guard vessels.
Now, a Chinese flag has been planted on Scarborough and only Chinese fishing vessels can be seen plying the waters.
Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen have been forced to find new fishing grounds, most of which have been irreversibly damaged from the effects of dynamite fishing. According to Tabat Snr, a fisherman based in the town of Santa Cruz, Masinloc, he can go for days without catching anything.
Captain Bari, who has been a captain for 25 years, said his trips have become much less frequent since 2012, and he will only go with a small boat so he can sneak in under the radar.
“DAVID AND GOLIATH” BATTLE
It has also been touted as a “David and Goliath” battle as China has one of the biggest fishing fleets in the world. Following the ruling from the UN court, it was a fight the fishermen had thought they had won.
Celebrations were held in Manila and in fishing communities across the country. Fishermen thought their years of suffering, during which they were barely able to make ends meet, were over. They excitedly prepared to go back to their old fishing grounds, but it was revealed on their first trip that nothing has changed.
ADJUSTING TO LIFE WITHOUT SCARBOROUGH SHOAL
Life has been very hard for Filipino fishermen, as many have been forced to try and find different jobs to complement their meagre fishing earnings. Jeffery Escape, from the bureau of agriculture, has said many fishermen have opted to take up some of the programmes they offer, including seaweed or shellfish cultivation, or even take up jobs such as tricycle drivers.
Others have just moved away and relocated to coastal towns further north where there is more chance of catching fish. Only a few brave fishermen dare sneak into Scarborough Shoal, avoiding the watchful eye of the Chinese.
When asked whether China is currently allowing Philippine fishermen to fish around Scarborough Shoal, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the decision of the court would have no effect on China’s South China Sea policy.
Following the ruling, Foreign Affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay asked those involved in the territorial dispute to exercise restraint. Local government officials, including the mayor of Zambales, have cautioned the 3,000-strong fishing community from going back to the area.
However, there is hope. Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said the government is now planning course of actions to ensure the safety of Filipino fishermen planning to venture off Scarborough Shoal. Until then, for the fishermen of Masinloc, it is a cat-and-mouse game in the waters off Scarborough Shoal or a daily struggle to catch enough fish to feed their families.