Exhausted Mindoro fishermen want their normal lives back
SAN JOSE, Ooccidental Mindoro, Philippines — “Buhawi,” the skipper’s call sign, is a tough man at sea.
What else could harden Junel Insigne, who has been fishing in open waters for 31 years, and, in an instance, back in 1998, lost his younger brother, Jocel, and two uncles in a boat accident while fishing?
But at home, Buhawi’s captain is Lanie, the wife who would ask him to sew up the stuffed “bangus” (milkfish) for grilling and be pissed off when he ended up burning the foil.
“He finished only Grade 6, but [at sea] he could read the maps with just a protractor and a compass,” Lanie said, completely unregretful that she, despite being a graduate of midwifery, married Junel when they were 19.
They have six children. The youngest, 4-year-old Prince, has cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) and the family is preparing for the boy’s surgery.
When he is not at sea, Junel, 43, or “Kuya Dok” to his neighbors in Barangay San Roque here, is seen in his usual sleeveless shirt watching over Prince play on the shore or carrying dirty kitchenware to the common water pump for washing or helping his wife sell cooked food, including barbecue, for extra money.
Far from home
Normally, Junel leads a crew of 20 men on a 15-day fishing expedition, once a month, to Recto Bank, a rich fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
As the boat captain, he earns a portion of the average 3 to 5 tons of catch and brings home P20,000 to P50,000 per trip to his family.
Crew members, like Jaypee Gordiones, 30, earns from their individual catch sold back to the boat owner, like a kilo of “lapu-lapu” (grouper) for P120. The boat owner, back on land, then sells the fish with a markup either for export or local markets.
“[Junel] is strict about us watching no more than one movie [on a portable DVD player on the boat] at night because he did not want us to stay up late,” Gordiones said.
As early as 6 a.m., the fishermen descend to the “sagwanan” (small paddle boats) for “pangangawil,” or dropping into the water the fishing lines with hooks and bait—chicken feathers and a piece of orange and white cloth to lure the fish.
With an hour’s break for lunch, they work all day and return to the mother vessel around 5 p.m.
On the boat, the assigned “bodegero” records how much each fisherman caught that day.
Light on the horizon
According to Gordiones, he always beats the other fishermen in catch. He also claims to be the fastest paddler of them all, that’s why he volunteered to look for help after their boat was hit by the Chinese trawler and found a Vietnamese boat 8 kilometers from Recto Bank.
That was around midnight on June 9, when the Chinese trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212 hit the anchored and well-lit Gem-Ver 1, causing the fishing boat to list.
Some of the Filipino crew scrambled toward the bow, the only portion of the boat that stayed above water, cold and about 38 meters deep.
Others clung to plastic drums that floated and tried to salvage whatever they could.
When the Chinese boat left them, Gordiones and Justine Pascual, 21, rowed “for two hours without stopping,” each on the two sagwanan that also floated.
They aimed for a faint light on the horizon, which was coming from the Vietnamese boat.
“Justine only got 1.5 liters of water for both of us. I said, ‘That’s OK. But let’s stay together.’ All we were thinking of was to reach the Vietnam[ese] boat because if it moved away, we would have to row farther,” Gordiones said.
Before rowing, Gordiones made a sign of the cross and thought of his 2-year-old daughter and six-month pregnant wife back home.
“Prayers do help, right ma’am? I was sobbing and my arms [were] shaking when we finally reached the Vietnamese boat,” he said, recalling how he made hand signs like cupping sea water in his hand to explain that their boat sank.
It took the Vietnamese boat an hour to reach the listing boat and four days before the Filipino crew, later fetched by a Philippine Navy ship, to return to their families.
Gordiones said he did not see how the Chinese trawler hit their fishing boat as he was in the lower cabin at the time.
But he also said that he did not hear any warning sound from the approaching Chinese vessel “or any [verbal warning from the Chinese] through a megaphone, which they must have.”
Junel, who in earlier interviews said the Chinese intentionally hit his boat, on Saturday said he was “unsure” if it was deliberate.
When will it the end?
“I’ve repeated myself several times,” Junel sighed, reiterating that he did not wish for the Philippines to go to war with China but only to “hold the Chinese captain accountable for abandoning us.”
Nobody wanted this to happen, they said, noting lives in the small, sleepy fishing village have been disrupted since high-ranking government officials, journalists, and, at one time, riot police, began coming down.
Ma. Fe de la Torre, the boat owner, said she and her family had to leave the village temporarily. “We needed rest because we’re too stressed out already,” she said in a text message.
On Saturday, while testing the fiberglass boats donated by the government, one resident suggested in jest to install steel outriggers. “Ram the Chinese with them to get even],” he said as others chuckled.
“Since [we were transferred to the Navy [ship], we’ve been giving interviews already,” Gordiones said, wondering how far the controversy would go.
Junel’s voice would trail off and the shy smile would be wiped away every time questions about the hit-and-run, which President Duterte played down as just a “little maritime accident,” came up.
He clammed up whenever asked if there was any pressure or how he felt about the government’s handling of the incident, slightly shaking his head then just staring blankly.
Even Lanie — who happily told neighbors that Vice President Leni Robredo had visited them, partook of the meals she had prepared — did not have as much to say about the visits of Cabinet officials.
For one, she was not present during the fishermen’s meeting with Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol last week.
But from what she knew, Piñol said “not much. They (the fishermen) were just advised to ask help from the President.”
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