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Fishers seek shelter in occupied Panatag Shoal

/ 05:05 AM April 23, 2021

DAGUPAN CITY—Strong winds and large waves spawned by Typhoon “Bising” (international name: Surigae) have forced several groups of Filipino fishermen to take refuge in Panatag Shoal, about 240 kilometers southwest of Infanta town in Pangasinan province, now occupied by Chinese fishermen.

Eric Naboa, president of the Cato Infanta Fishermen’s Association Inc., said the fishermen sailed to the shoal, also known as Scarborough Shoal, despite the presence of an undetermined number of Chinese fishing vessels in the area.

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About 100 boats left Infanta last week for a fishing voyage in the shoal, which would normally last for several days, but the fishermen were “caught in the middle of bad weather and rough seas [and] were stuck in the area,” Naboa told the Inquirer in a phone interview on Thursday.

He said the fishermen decided to stay in the shoal, in an area some 15 kilometers from where the Chinese fishing vessels were located, until the weather would clear up since it was safer in the area.

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According to Naboa, he received a radio communication from one of the fishermen on Monday about their decision to stay on the shoal to weather the storm.

He said he was informed that the Chinese fishermen nearby did not stop them from taking shelter on the shoal.

As of Thursday, the groups of fishers have yet to return to Infanta, he added.

For years, the shoal has been serving as a traditional fishing ground and shelter from the storm for Filipino and foreign fishermen.

The shoal’s 150-square-km lagoon is a breeding ground for high-value fish species.

‘Regain by force’

Citing recent accounts of fishermen from Infanta, Naboa said they could freely roam near the shoal but some spots, especially the entrance to the shoal’s lagoon, remained off-limits to them.

“There is a peaceful coexistence between Filipino and Chinese fishermen at the shoal, and we hoped that the tension in the West Philippine Sea would not further escalate,” Naboa said, referring to the territorial dispute between the two countries.

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He added: “The Chinese fishermen are not driving us away from the shoal and our fishing boats can stay there without disturbance.”

The fishermen’ association has around 100 members, most of whom are small boat owners.

President Duterte on Monday said the West Philippine Sea is no longer in the possession of the country, with China ships taking over it. He said the Philippine government could only regain control of the area by force.

If the territorial dispute between the two countries escalates, Naboa said Filipino fishermen “may not be allowed to enter the shoal, and we would have no shelter when there are typhoons.”

“We would be greatly affected. But it is the President’s decision on what to do with the (West Philippine Sea). We can only hope that he would always put into consideration the plight of many fishermen,” he said.

Aside from commercial fishing boats, small boats that are registered with the municipal government could freely roam around the shoal.

Naboa said the Chinese vessels linger around the shoal.

“They don’t leave the area,” he said.

Jowe Legaspi, 50, a former operator of commercial fishing vessels in Pangasinan, expressed frustration over the statement of Duterte.

Legaspi said he sympathized with the Pangasinan fisherfolk who must face the Chinese vessels every time they would venture out to the West Philippine Sea.

“It seems like our seas had been given away,” Legaspi told the Inquirer in an interview.

—YOLANDA SOTELO AND JOANNA ROSE AGLIBOT
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