Wary Bataan fishermen steer clear of Panatag

MARIVELES, Bataan — Lugie Bagani has not returned to fish at the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Reef) for a month now, or since Chinese vessels drove away Filipino fishermen using water cannon.

“We never returned to the shoal because they were training hoses at us,” Bagani, the skipper of the fishing boat Lucky 12 from the village of Sisiman in Mariveles, said in Filipino on Thursday. “Huminto na ang lahat [They’ve all stopped]” he said.

His account jibed with reports by the military early this week that the Chinese Coast Guard drove away Filipino fishers from Panatag on January 27 using water cannon.

Philippine authorities have condemned the incident as another case of aggression by China, which is claiming all of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as part of its territory. Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam also claim parts of the seas, which are known to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Bagani said about 40 fishing boats from Bataan used to fish in the waters around Panatag, or what the locals call Bajo de Masinloc, which is about 200 kilometers from Bataan and 650 kilometers from China’s Hainan island. He said Panatag is a rich fishing ground, where they had caught tanigue, bariles and yellow fin tuna.

Fishermen from Sisiman travel one day and one night to reach Panatag. They stay at the shoal for a week, he said.

“We hope the government resolves the problem at Scarborough because our catch is getting smaller,” Bagani said, adding that most of the fishermen from Sisiman have shifted to the area near Palawan.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has advised Filipino fishermen against going to Panatag to avoid a confrontation with Chinese maritime authorities.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday pushed for a calibrated response to the latest confrontation. “In case the Chinese Coast Guard vessel will still persist [in] water cannon attacks, [our] response should be calibrated where we will have the Philippine Coast Guard to maintain ‘white-on-white’ response so as not to heighten the tension,” he said.

White-on-white is a military term for a civilian-to-civilian ship confrontation.