China still controls access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, but Filipino fishermen say they have been accorded better access to the rich fishing grounds.
Last week, two Philippine Coast Guard ships and its aircraft patrolled near Scarborough Shoal and reported that more Filipino fishermen were going to Bajo de Masinloc, the shoal’s local name, despite the sustained presence of Chinese maritime forces.
Joe Saligan, a 43-year-old boat captain, who has spent most of his life fishing in and around the waters of the Scarborough Shoal, said he can see improvement in access around the shoal.
“Our fish catch is better now because we no longer have to play cat-and-mouse with the Chinese. Unlike before, when they would cut the ropes of our anchors, shoo us away, or sometimes use water cannons on us,” Saligan said.
“There are times we are not allowed to get into the mouth of the shoal where the two China Coast Guard ships are anchored. But this is better than the bullying before. Years ago, they would harass us even when we were just outside or near the shoal.”
Saligan was among the fishermen who experienced China’s intimidation and harassment from 2012 – when a standoff between Manila and Beijing saw China take control of the Scarborough Shoal area – until late 2016 when then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pivoted to the Asian superpower.
In October 2016, Duterte said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed Filipinos’ fishing rights in Scarborough, leading to the improvement of treatment of fishermen.
Saligan, the captain of fishing boat F/B JJ-3, and his crew sailed from the port of Subic in Zambales in central Luzon to the shoal and its surrounding areas on Sept. 28. BenarNews met with them on Wednesday in the port of Rosario, south of Manila, where they unloaded their three-ton catch from their two-week voyage.
For their recent voyage, Saligan said members of his 11-man crew are expected to be paid at least $170 each, which is not much, he said, citing the high cost of diesel and food.
“There are times, the Chinese are not strict. There are times they are cranky. They can be moody, too,” Saligan told BenarNews, laughing. He said he spotted seven Chinese vessels in the area – two in the shoal’s mouth, three roving ships and two smaller vessels inside.
Despite this, Saligan said he is fine with the situation because the Filipino fishers can mostly continue to earn their livelihood.
Additionally, the Philippine Coast Guard has accompanied local fishermen at least twice – in March and October 2022 – and provided them with relief supplies, much to the delight of Saligan and crew.
“First of all, we were really happy to see Philippine ships there, because we felt safe. We felt they were our protectors,” Saligan said. “For many years, only we fishermen were there, almost ready to fight against China in Scarborough just so we can continue fishing.”
Sonny Gomez, 52, a crew member on another fishing boat, concurred. He told BenarNews the situation now was quite different from what it was eight years ago.
He recalled how he and his colleagues in 2014 held on tightly to wooden posts on their boat when a China Coast Guard ship trained its water cannon on them.
“We begged them and thankfully they listened to our plea. But now, there are no more encounters like that,” Gomez said.
“But I wish they would still allow us to fish inside the lagoon, because there are lots of fish there. If they won’t, we will not insist because we don’t know what can happen.”
But the turnaround in attitude has come at a price. By discussing Filipino fishermen’s rights with China, Manila had only bolstered Beijing’s baseless claim over Scarborough Shoal, analysts said.
Six years after a landmark international tribunal ruling invalidated China’s expansive claims in the West Philippine Sea, the part of South China Sea that Manila claims, Beijing has refused to accept the ruling.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that both Chinese and Filipino fishermen have the right to engage in traditional fishing there. China had “unlawfully prevented Filipino fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing” through the operation of its official ships, the tribunal had added.
“We are actually supporting China’s narrative by asking permission to fish,” Rommel Jude Ong, a retired vice admiral in the Philippine Navy, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
“It reinforces their claim that they have legal claims over Scarborough Shoal and we have not challenged their assertion of control.”
BenarNews is an RFA affiliated news service.