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A fine kettle of fish

Illustration: Sarah John

A hulking, dark green fishing vessel named Magdalena docks at the Navotas Fisheries Port Complex in Metro Manila as the sun goes down and another long night begins. Dozens of sweaty, shirtless porters unload tubs filled with the latest catch in this chaotic, boisterous and muddy marketplace, a labyrinth where buyers and sellers meet. A pungent mix of human sweat, polluted seawater and fresh fish wafts in the early evening air.

Fishing boats start arriving here around 6.00pm, eagerly awaited by hundreds of traders. The frenzy of activity goes on until around 3.00am, when the last vessel arrives.

The busy nights were even longer years ago, stretching out into noon the following day – or ‘until Eat Bulaga begins’, according to Nenita Lanceta, who has been working here since 1985. Eat Bulaga is the country’s longest running daily variety show. It has aired on national television at exactly 12 noon for 42 years now.

‘It’s because of the Chinese vessels,’ says Lanceta, noting that things changed sometime in 2015.

The presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters has affected the catch coming in because they drive away Filipino fishers. There has been a steady decline from 5 million tons in 2011 to 4.3 million in 2018.

A particular bone of contention is the Scarborough Shoal, a triangle-shaped chain of reefs 46 kilometres long located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone 119 nautical miles away – or a day and half’s boat ride – from Luzon, the nearest landmass. It is claimed by China and Taiwan, claims invalidated by an UN-backed court in The Hague in 2016. China has rejected the international court’s ruling.

‘The shoal is important because we would shelter there when there were strong winds. We can’t now because the Chinese vessels drive us away,’ says fisher Randy Megu.

Now Filipino fishers are forced to risk the strong winds and the giant waves they create. They take their chances, heading to the area to fish and leaving just in time, before the bigger Chinese vessels spot them. Driving winds can catch up with them on their way back. Earlier this year, a crew of 10 fishers didn’t make it back home.

The dispute has drastically affected the livelihoods of some 1,500 Filipino fishers, including Randy.

For Roderic Santos, president of a fish traders’ association, whose family has been in the fishing business for three generations, the biggest impact of the Chinese presence is damage to marine life. ‘They harm the environment because they are building structures there,’ he says.

Structures such as the 550-hectare artificial island constructed by China in Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, under Chinese occupation since 1995. The Spratly Islands are bountiful for fishing because the shallow waters around them allow enough sunlight to pass through to nurture marine life.

In March this year, over 200 Chinese vessels were sighted at the Julian Felipe Reef which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The life of the fishers is laborious and Chinese encroachment is an added burden. They spend long periods at sea, away from their families. Their skin is sun-baked and their hands calloused from hauling slabs of ice to keep their catch fresh. But Randy, who learned his trade from his father before him, knows no other life.

Hearing his story, I wonder why our government isn’t doing enough to assert our rights over the disputed waters.

‘How can we fight China? Do we have weapons, do we have everything?’ President Duterte asked in his State of the Nation address last July, in stark contrast to his campaign promise that he would ride a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea (or the South China Sea, depending on one’s political perspective) and assert the country’s sovereignty. When asked about it, the president said it was just a campaign joke.

But fishers like Randy aren’t laughing and they want the government to rise to the challenge. ‘Scarborough is ours. It has always been ours,’ he says.

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