The past 10 years have not been easy for Vicente Berosil and other fishermen in Masinloc, since their livelihoods disappeared when Chinese ships suddenly entered the waters they had known for generations as their own.
Berosil’s home, a small coastal municipality in Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, has in its territorial jurisdiction waters that have been known to have some of the best fishing in the region.
The richest of them is Scarborough Shoal inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
But Philippine fishermen can no longer access it.
Claimed by China as its ancestral territory since the 13th century, Scarborough has been part of the growing dispute Beijing has with Manila and the governments of other countries in the region over the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s most resourceful and heavily trafficked waterways.
Scarborough Shoal is the sea’s largest atoll and has been under Chinese control since 2012. This is when a Filipino warship attempted to arrest those aboard Chinese boats allegedly poaching in Scarborough and was blocked by Chinese marine surveillance vessels.
The Chinese have cordoned off the entrance of the shoal and Philippine boats can no longer access it.
“They (Chinese) will shoo you away, they will block you with their vessels, rubber boats,” Berosil, 49, told Arab News. “It’s scary, our small boats are no match (for) them.”
His colleague, Jerry Edradan, 50, started to fish for a living when he was 15 and for nearly three decades the sea provided him with a decent living. This was until 2012, when the region lost its main source of income.
“Since China entered the scene, we have been really struggling. We have barely enough to buy rice, we have to eke out money every day,” Edradan said. “It wasn’t like that before. Life used to be good … We always had a good catch and Scarborough was really open.”
The Philippines has filed numerous diplomatic protests and in 2016 won a larger case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled that Chinese activities within the 200-nautical-mile Philippine exclusive economic zone infringed on Manila’s sovereign rights. But China dismissed the ruling and its presence in the area continues to increase.
For the fishermen, hope for a reversal of this situation has come in the form of a growing American military presence — under a decades-long security alliance that obliges the Philippines and US to defend each other’s territory in case of external attack.
In February, the Philippines allowed US troops to increase their footprint in the country and gave them access to new bases, including in the South China Sea.
In May, Manila’s envoy to Washington announced that joint Philippine-US maritime patrols could begin later this year.
Meanwhile, the struggle continues for the area’s Filipino fishing community.