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.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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