Beijing [China], May 27 (ANI): Rising tensions in the disputed areas of the South China Sea, accompanied with COVID-related lockdown measures and the presence of Chinese boats are complicating the distribution of fish catches and threatening the survival of Filipino fishermen, according to activists.
Members of BIGKIS, a collective of fishermen from the northern fishing provinces of Zambales and Pangasinan, have said that the presence of Chinese boats in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is hampering their fishing activities, reported DW news agency.
Vicente Pauan, 35, said that fishermen like him had been adversely affected by China's aggressive encroachment in the South China Sea since 2012, the year when Beijing started building military structures on islands in the area.
"We do not even have enough fish to feed our families. We sell at a loss and are buried in debt. We will starve," Pauan said.
Furthermore, quarantine-related checkpoints are preventing the transport of fish from closer municipal waters to larger fishing markets. Alternative livelihoods such as construction work have disappeared because of the economic slowdown brought on by a prolonged COVID-19 lockdown.
"Our fishermen are cornered. We are not only speaking about livelihood here but also the right to live," Ria Teves, president of the grassroots NGO Peoples Development Institute, told DW.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.
In March, tensions between the Philippines and China came to a climax after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted in the disputed portions of the South China Sea. Philippines defence and foreign ministers have claimed that the "threatening" Chinese vessels are manned by militias.
National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana slammed Beijing's maritime presence, calling it "a provocative action of militarising the area."
However, President Rodrigo Duterte has refrained from directly criticising Beijing. "China is claiming it. We are claiming it. ... China has arms. ... We do not. It's as simple as that. ... What can we do?" he said in response to criticisms that his administration had not done enough to assert the Philippines' South China Sea claims.
Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has publicly urged the president to retract his statements, warning that his statements could have major repercussions for Filipino fishermen, reported DW news agency.
On May 17, Duterte issued a gag order on May 17, preventing his cabinet from speaking on the South China Sea in public, while maintaining that the Philippines would defend its rightful territories and instructed maritime patrols to continue.
Western powers have recently directed their naval assets in the South China Sea to challenge China's expansion in the region.
"We will get less and less fish because we cannot control China's overfishing. We may soon see the collapse of our fishing sector, " said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. (ANI)