As conflict between the Philippines and China continues over maritime territory, the future of fisheries in the disputed area has become a key question.
While the Philippines stays in lockdown and attempts to get its worst COVID-19 wave to date under control, disputes with China over waters in the South China Sea have progressed quickly and raised questions about the future of the Philippines’ fisheries.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on April 28 that the country’s navy and coast guard will not back down from conducting exercises and patrols inside Philippine waters. “I’ll tell China, we do not want trouble, we do not want war. But if you tell us to leave—no,” the president said. “There are things which are not really subject to a compromise, such as us pulling back… I hope they understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”
On April 25, the Philippines reportedly deployed its coast guard and fisheries bureau for “intensified” maritime training. When asked to comment on the Philippines’ exercises, the Chinese foreign ministry said the Philippines should “respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes.”
In March, the Philippines detected as many as 200 Chinese fishing vessels around the Julian Felipe Reef. In addition to objections and patrols, the exchange has prompted renewed debate over a verbal agreement that Duterte supposedly made with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016 to allow Chinese vessels to fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The maritime territory under dispute includes some of the region’s largest fisheries, which are vital to the Philippine economy. The fisheries bureau says that these areas, which the Philippines refers to as the West Philippine Sea, produce as much as 7% of the country’s fishing catch.
“We are encouraging our fishers to fish in the area, and not be afraid, because the government will continue to support them and protect our environment,” said fisheries bureau head Eduardo Gongona.
President Duterte has sought to downplay the issue of fishing, saying in April “I don’t think there’s enough fish really to quarrel about.”
Economic, environmental value of fisheries plays growing role in tensions
Philippine fishing authorities estimate that Chinese fishing vessels in contested waters are bringing in around one ton of fish per day.
In response to the recent exchanges, civil society groups in the Philippines have highlighted that the question of control over the disputed areas heavily impacts the livelihoods and food security of Filipinos. Pinoy Aksyon for Governance and the Environment (Pinoy Aksyon) and Homonhon Rescuers Environment Organization (HERO) issued a joint statement calling for the government to enforce existing fishing and environmental laws.
“The logic is simple: no fish catch, no income for the Filipino fisherfolk would result in hunger. Low fish supply means higher fish prices,” said Bency Ellorin, chair of Pinoy Aksyon.
Villardo Abueme, head of HERO, said that the government is significantly underestimating the impact of Chinese vessels on fisheries, suggesting that some of the boats used by small-scale fishers in the Philippines could bring in a catch of 300-400 kilograms per day.
Philippine fishing industry struggles to control impacts of South China Sea dispute
Since disagreements between China and the Philippines began to escalate in 2012, local fishers have often struggled to access the waters they depend on for their livelihoods.
In the waters around Pag-asa Island, the Chinese coast guard has blocked access to the area since 2017. The president of a local fisher group, Robert Asiado, told Mongabay that they are effectively banned from the area. “We cannot fish there anymore, it’s forbidden, already forbidden,” he said.
According to reporting by Philippine journalist Purple Romero for Mongabay, the conflicts over maritime territory are also creating space for unchecked environmental destruction and leaving the Philippines unable to enforce environmental laws to protect its ecosystems and natural resources.
In 2010, the Philippine Supreme Court created a legal tool that obliges the government to protect “the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology” and to stop environmental damages that impact people’s health, life or property. The mechanism, known as the Writ of Kalikasan, allows citizens to demand government intervention in cases where they believe environmental laws are being violated.
Romero reports that in 2019, fishing communities in Palawan and Zambales filed a petition invoking the writ and calling for the navy, coast guard and others to enforce Philippine law over disputed waters. The petition said that state authorities had allowed Chinese vessels to illegally harvest wildlife in violation of environmental laws as far back as 2012 around the Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef.
But less than three months later, the plaintiffs withdrew their petition under somewhat mystifying circumstances, saying they didn’t know enough about the legal statutes involved. The Philippine government, however, has made the same allegations, saying that Chinese fishing vessels have caused a decline in local ecosystems and illegally collected giant clams, sea turtles and coral.
Pandemic poses new challenges for efforts to combat illegal fishing
The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it difficult for the Philippines to prioritize protection of its ocean ecosystems.
Last year during the Philippines’ initial lockdowns, illegal commercial fishing surged in coastal areas, according to Karagatan Patrol, a project of the non-profit Oceana Philippines and local governments. Karagatan Patrol used a satellite data tool to track the large lure lights used on large fishing vessels and found that the number of likely cases of illegal fishing in restricted waters increased by 65% in March 2020.
Though illegal fishing in the Philippines has declined since the 1990s, according to the New York Times, the pandemic has made enforcement more difficult and economic conditions may push some fishers to cut corners and violate regulations to earn a living. In recent years, low wages have prompted some to turn to dynamite fishing, an ecologically disastrous technique that is also illegal and high risk. The practice is one factor that has led to the destruction of much of the coral in Philippine waters.
As the Philippines deals with the simultaneous challenges of a COVID-19 surge and tensions with China, key questions remain about the future of the country’s fishing industry and its ocean ecosystems.