For years, Filipino fishermen have made their living in the waters of Panatag Shoal, a marine haven within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. But with the continued disruptive presence of the Chinese coast guard in the area, a fishing trip to Panatag is the farthest thing from smooth sailing.

GMA News and Public Affairs
June 21, 2018

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It was late afternoon on May 28 when a team from GMA-7’s Reporter’s Notebook, including this writer, embarked on a journey aboard a 76-foot boat to document the lives of Filipino fishers in Panatag Shoal, also known as Scarborough or Bajo de Masinloc.

A Filipino term that means calm or tranquil, Panatag best describes the waters of the shoal. It is a marine haven within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and a traditional fishing ground for Filipinos. 

It would be an 18-hour ride each way, and we would be spending days in the open sea before making the return journey.

A fisherman sits atop his outrigger boat en route to Scarborough Shoal.

The captain’s unique way of steering the wheel, using his feet, his way of catching fresh air, outside the humid cockpit.

Local fishermen have gotten used to calling Scarborough Shoal “Kalboro.” Delfin Egana has ridden out to Kalboro over a hundred times. He began traveling to the shoal at age 15 when his father first brought him. Back then, they could freely fish, returning home with tons of catch. But times have changed, says Delfin.

Unable to hold back emotions, tears flow from his eyes as he recounts a frightful encounter with China’s coast guard last December. He was just fishing in the lagoon, Delfin says, when he was interrupted in the middle of his dive and forced to surrender his fishing gear.

Kinuha nila yung gamit ko na pana. Halos ayaw ko sanang ibigay dahil naaawa naman ako sa pamilya ko,” he says between sobs.

(“They took away the spear that I used. I didn't want to give it up because I was thinking of my family.”)

It wasn't easy to craft these fishing spears, he says, and the materials can cost a few thousand pesos.

“We're like thieves in our own seas.”

His voice still cracking, Delfin says he tried to swim away but to no avail. The Chinese eventually caught up with him using a contraption with a hook on one end. The hook caught his collar and he was pulled to the surface.

Ayaw kong ibigay ang pana ko eh. Pinipilit nila, hinabol pa nga ako eh. Nung nahabol nila ako, nahawakan nila ako. Eh 'di nabitiwan nila ako, tapos kinawit nila ako ng ganun. Eh umiiwas ako sa elesi ng speedboat baka matamaan ako. 'Yun ang iniwasan ko,” he says. 

(“I didn't want to give up my spear. They even chased me. When they caught me, they hooked me. I was trying to avoid the rotor of their speedboat.”) 

He went home to his family with no catch, no money in his pocket, no food to put on the table. As a father and husband, that was the most difficult part for him.

Halos wala akong kinita, Sir, sa Scarborough. Umuwi kaming luhaan,” he says. 

(“I came home emptyhanded, Sir, at Scarborough. We went home in tears.”)

A Chinese vessel can be seen in the distance.

Relations between the Philippines and China turned sour in 2012 over a maritime dispute, with Filipino fishermen bearing the brunt of the diplomatic row.

It was an offshoot of a standoff in Scarborough Shoal following the apprehension by Philippine Navy of Chinese fishing vessels caught with illegally-collected endangered giant clams, corals and other marine resources. 

In 2013, the Philippines filed a case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, claiming China’s actions violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the Philippines and China both ratified.

Rommel Cejuela, captain of the fishing boat, remembers clearly the fallout from the row. They were prevented by China’s coast guard from fishing in Scarborough Shoal, which is ironic considering that Scarborough Shoal is just 124 nautical miles off Masinloc, Zambales, and well within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. 

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, recognizing the country’s sovereign rights in parts of the West Philippine Sea and effectively declaring China’s “nine-dash-line” as invalid. 

But it wasn't until 2017, after a perceived warming of ties between the Philippines and China, when they were allowed to fish again, says Rommel. 

Still, the situation isn’t exactly “back to normal”, with China’s coast guard keeping a close watch on their fishing activities, limiting their movement. The main entrance to the shoal — the bukana — is still off-limits, they say. One must be clever and find other ways into the lagoon. 

Para kaming magnanakaw sa sariling karagatan,” Rommel says.

(“We're like thieves in our own seas.”)

Delfin Egana had a harrowing firsthand experience with Chinese coast guard men, who confiscated his fishing equipment.

After 16 hours, we finally reach Scarborough Shoal.

The sun was up, giving us a clear view of the surroundings. Some fishing boats were anchored around the shoal while a few were already leaving the moment we arrived.  

They're also from Subic in Zambales, says one of the fishermen on our boat.

Those who remain would be staying a few more days, taking advantage of the last glimpses of fishing season that usually starts in November and ends in May.

On the horizon, at least four vessels of China’s coast guard loom, a stark reminder of their strong presence. There were a couple of other vessels that we didn’t get to see. 

Sa bukana ng Kalboro may dalawa pang nagbabantay na China coast guard. Sila ang humaharang para (maliit na) bangka lang ang makapasok,” says a fisherman.

(“At the mouth of the shoal, there are two other Chinese coast guard vessels. They block access so that only small boats can enter the shoal.”)

Cellphone video obtained by Reporter's Notebook shows Chinese coast guard men going through Filipino fishermen's catch.

We did not see a single ship from the Philippine Coast Guard, giving Chinese authorities more control over the area. Without the presence of Philippine authorities, the Chinese set the rules, the Filipinos toe the line.

Without their counterparts from the Philippine Coast Guard, the Chinese can practically do anything they want, says Geronimo Egana, a 56-year-old fisherman.

While China’s Coast Guard no longer bars them from fishing, Geronimo complains that there is no guarantee they would be able to bring home all of their catch.

Pati mga daing kinukuha nila, grabe nga ginagawa nila. Tumatawa pa sila, kami naman walang kaimik-imik siyempre mahirap ka naman lumaban,” Geronimo says.

(“They would get even the small fish. They would even laugh in our faces. We'd just sit there quietly because we couldn't do anything.”)

Geronimo witnessed how China’s coast guard personnel displayed what they felt was utter disrespect: climbing onboard their boat, searching for the best catch. No questions asked, not a word said.

He laments, “Kapag umaakyat sila rito, manghahalungkat lang sila. Wala silang paalam kung anong kasanayan. 'Yan ang parang ang liit ng tingin natin sa mga Pilipino, parang kuwan, parang ari na lang nila ito. Basta kung anong mahalungkat, Sir, ilalagay nila sa plastic. 'Yung magaganda pa ang kukunin nila.”

(“When they climb onboard, they just turn over everything. It's like they think so little of Filipinos, like they own us. Anything they find, they just put it in their plastic bags. They even get the best that we have.”)

Geronimo's story comes clearer when Reporter’s Notebook gets hold of a video discreetly filmed by a Filipino fisherman from Masinloc earlier this May.

The video shows a member of China’s coast guard boarding a Filipino fishing vessel, opening styrofoam boxes, and sifting through the days’ catch.

Fishermen from Mariveles, Bataan would echo the same story.

“When they climb onboard, they just turn over everything. It's like they think so little of Filipinos, like they own us. Anything they find, they just put it in their plastic bags. They even get the best that we have.”

The fishermen were already preparing to launch their small fishing boats mounted on the outriggers of the bigger vessel that took us to Scarborough Shoal, when someone spots an approaching speedboat from one the Chinese vessels. The Reporter's Notebook team puts away our large camera equipment to avoid any misunderstanding.

They reach our boat, and one of the Chinese coast guards signals “fish.” The locals have not caught anything yet, so we ask the guards if they want some bread. It's not what they came for.

The Chinese leave, speeding toward other Filipino fishing boats in the area.

Onboard three small fishing bancas, the fishermen find another way inside the lagoon, away from the Chinese boats stationed at the main entrance. They carefully maneuver through shallow waters replete with protruding rock and coral. But it doesn’t seem much of a problem; they know this place like the back of their hands.

Employing a centuries-old technique of fishing using worn-out goggles called antepara, makeshift fins and improvised spearfishing gadgets, the local fishers hold their breaths, and dive for the perfect catch.

In no time, Delfin swims back up, holding his first hit, a fish called loro.

Masarap na kilawin itong isdang loro,” he tells me.

(“This loro is great for ceviche.”)

The others follow suit with their own catch, various types of fish on nylon strings. 

But fishermen have seen their catch dwindle every year, an alarming sign for those who are heavily dependent on the richness of Scarborough Shoal.

What’s ailing the shoal? The answer lies beneath the sea.  

The fishermen lead the Reporter’s Notebook team to an area where they say they saw with their own eyes how Chinese poachers ravaged the seabed in search of precious giant clams, taklobo in the local lingo. 

Around May last year, they witnessed a throng of Chinese fishing speedboats in Scarborough Shoal coming in and out of the lagoon.

Ronnie Drio, 51, witnessed the horrific scene. “Sinira talaga nila ang bahura dito dahil sa pagkuha nila ng taklobo,” he says. 

(“They damaged the reefs when they harvested the giant clams.”) 

The Filipino fishermen watched helplessly as Chinese poachers carried out their activity. By their own estimates, the fishermen saw hundreds of endangered giant clams being loaded onto Chinese fishing boats. 

Ang China ang hari dito,” Drio mutters with frustration. 

(“China is king here.") 

At the bottom of the sea lies a trail of destruction: coral reefs shattered to pieces, some giant clam discards left behind.  

Clearly, Filipino fishers say, the Chinese were only after light-colored giant clam shells. “Iniwan nila ang mga medyo maitim ang kulay,” a fisherman says. ("They left clams that are dark in color.")

Once colorful, the coral reef has turned grey, like a place covered in ash after a volcanic eruption.

Grabe. Kawawa ang Scarborough. Kung makita nila mismo baka manglumo sila kung makita nila gaano pagkawasak,” Drio lamented.

(“It's a pitiful sight. If everyone saw it, they would be crestfallen by the destruction too.”)

He knows what he is talking about, having seen the shoal in its pristine form.

Filipino fishermen worry about the long-term repercussions of the damage left by Chinese poachers. They are calling on the Philippine government to help them save what is left of once-pristine, crystal-clear Panatag.

Kung kami ngayon nakakakuha pa ng sampung kilo, baka sa susunod na henerarsyon, isang kilo na lang,” Drio warns.

(“If we can still get 10 kilos today, maybe only a kilo will be left for the next generation.”)

A Filipino fishing boat leaves Scarborough Shoal after days of fishing.

After three days out at sea, we finally make it back to land. For us, the journey has ended, but the story continues for the fishermen. They would go back to Panatag, for sure, armed only with their aging boats and their rickety fishing gear. I silently marvel at how well they know the sea, and at their courage to tell us their story.

Perhaps it is decades of seafaring that keeps calling them back to Panatag Shoal, a built-in GPS handed down to generations. Or perhaps it is the sheer will to survive that drives them to assert their rightful place there.

Or perhaps it’s because they know that, while might and muscle may not be to their advantage, they have on their side their greatest ally: the law of the sea itself.