A tiny Philippines fishing town has had its main industry wrecked by Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, local fishermen say.
Boat crews that have operated for decades on Scarborough Shoal have been forced away by the Chinese coast guard — even though the closest Chinese island is 560 nautical miles away.
Fishermen like Junick Josol have been forced to find other ways to make a living.
“I earned a lot bigger before when we went fishing at Scarborough,” he said.
“But, since we are prevented from fishing there, we have to fish inshore, and there’s not as many fish there.
“That’s why I’m forced to buy a tricycle to help generate income for my family.”
He drives a motorcycle taxi around his town of Masinloc and fishes in a small single-person boat.
Previously, he had been part of a big crew that took their boat on a 12-hour journey to the shoal.
Each fisherman could make about $400, he said. Now, closer to shore, he earns about $10 a trip.
The Chinese navy arrived at the shoal about two years ago, he said.
“There were two Chinese coast guard boats, four speedboats and two helicopters,” Mr Josol said.
“The helicopter was flying above us, really close to our boat. Then you could hear a voice saying: ‘All Philippine fishermen go’.”
A Chinese boat started hosing the fishermen.
“At first we were laughing. We were saying ‘ah we’ve been out at sea for a month — we need a fresh bath’.
What else can we do? If we go back there they might ram our boat. Then I will lose everything.
Filipino fisherman Junick Josol
“But after that we realised it did not smell good.”
They were being hosed with bilge water. The jets of water knocked two fishermen into the water.
The Philippines has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to rule that Scarborough Shoal belongs to it.
The decision is expected within weeks, but China has already said it does not recognise the validity of the case.
‘Chinese are destroying marine resources’
The fishermen of Masinloc said the area never belonged to anyone — Chinese and Filipino fishermen used to work the shoal side by side.
The head of the local fisheries management office, Dario Diaz, said the Chinese actions had damaged fishing villages all the way up the coast.
“Since it all started we are really mad with the Chinese because the Filipinos should benefit from the marine resources there and not just the Chinese,” Mr Diaz said.
“In fact the Chinese are destroying the marine resources of the area.”
The country’s president-elect Rodrigo Duterte said he would ride out to Scarborough Shoal on a jet ski and plant the Philippines flag.
Once it looked like he would actually win the presidency he softened his language, saying nations like the United States and Australia have an interest in the dispute, which should be settled by talks.
The fishermen of Masinloc are selling the last of the town’s big boats.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” Mr Josol said.
“But what else can we do? If we go back there they might ram our boat. Then I will lose everything.”
China said it will soon start reclaiming land at the shoal to build a permanent base.
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
|Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
|Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
|Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
|China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
|Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
|EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.