PALAWAN — Chito Villarin starts up the engine of his small fishing boat. The 36-year old makes his living by sailing into the waters of the South China Sea, off Palawan's west coast, in the hopes of bringing back a good catch.
"I catch different types of fish and octopus," he says, adding that he travels about 20 kilometers into the water. But Filipino fishermen like Villarin aren't the only ones casting off into these waters. Foreign poachers are frequently found off the coast of Palawan, and the authorities here are trying to stop them.
"Narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism, piracy, smuggling, poaching and other forms of criminality" are all going on in these waters, says Osmundo Salito, captain of the Philippines National Police Special Boat Unit. The U.S. gave six of these boats to the Philippines to help fight various types of crime, Salito says, but catching illegal foreign fishermen is now also high priority.
Anchored at the dock of the Special Boat Unit's station is a 30-meter-long ship. The maritime police say they picked up its crew of 11 Chinese nationals as well as five Filipino accomplices while they were catching endangered sea turtles.
They were found in waters near the Half Moon Shoal in the South China Sea, an area of the Spratly Islands — which are both the Philippines and China claim. Their capture back in May prompted an angry response from Beijing, which ordered Manila to hand over both the crew and their vessel.
But Filipino authorities instead pressed charges against the Chinese fishermen. They are now on trial, and if convicted, they face between 12 and 20 years in prison for violating protected species laws.
This follows a ruling last month in which a Palawan court found 12 other Chinese fishermen guilty of poaching in a protected coral reef zone. Those men were sentenced to between six and 12 years behind bars.
Officials here say that over the past decade hundreds of Chinese fishermen have been locked up. They used to use simple fishing lines and nets, but they've become much more sophisticated.
"They now have GPS, they now have sonar devices," says Palawan chief prosecutor Alen Rodriguez. "They are into trading. They buy the rare species from Filipinos."
Rodriguez says the authorities are not specifically targeting Chinese fishermen, but he claims all of these men clearly broke Filipino law. "There is overwhelming evidence, and we can't just turn the other way and let them leave. I am confident we will get the conviction."
South China Sea skirmishes
This year, China attempted to build an oil platform in waters claimed by Vietnam. The Philippines' navy says Chinese forces try to block its supply ships. And recently, Washington said a Chinese fighter jet confronted one of its own planes in airspace over the sea.
Some observers in Manila say the frequent maritime violations of Chinese fishermen are also an example of Beijing's territorial expansion plan.
Rafael Alunan, a former Philippines Interior Secretary, claims the fishermen are just a proxy for the Chinese military. "The fishermen are part of China's salami slice strategy," Alunan says. "They're using their fishing fleets, fishermen, their civilian ships, to poach, occupy, reclaim. They're using their civilian assets, and the fishermen are at the vanguard. We're firming things up. We are showing the Chinese that if you keep on intruding and stepping all over us, we're going to clamp down. It's a strong message."
But Beijing’s Foreign Ministry claims that the fishermen caught by Filipino forces were all operating in Chinese sovereign territory.
Security concerns aside, the Chinese fishermen also pose a threat to Palawan's economy and environment, says Grizelda Anda, director of the Environmental Law Assistance Center in Puerto Princesa.
While there's no official tally, its easy to imagine what the foreign poachers are doing to the local ecosystem, she says. "If you look at the hundreds of turtles and other marine life they've gathered, it's in the millions. They maintain the balance there, which is very important to make sure we still have fisheries and that the coral reefs will not be destroyed, since they are the home of fisheries and other aquatic life. So you can imagine the impact of that damage to the livelihood of the fishing folks of Palawan and elsewhere."
Anda adds that some foreign fishermen used to bribe their way out of legal punishment, but it seems those days are over.
As for the Chinese fishermen now on trial, Alen Rodriguez says that if they are convicted, the only way for them to get out of jail is via presidential pardon. And that doesn't seem likely.
"In the past, during the time of President Arroyo, some Chinese fishermen were pardoned and allowed to go home. But under the Aquino administration, I have not heard of any such incident."
Rodriguez expects the trial to conclude by the end of September.