“Their first reaction is to flee, but they stoponce they realise they cannot out-run us,” boat captain John ReyZumarraga told AFP during a training exercise in Honda Bay off thePhilippines’ most western island of Palawan.
With top speeds of 83kilometres an hour (45 knots), modern radar systems and elite marineofficers, the 10-metre (33-foot) Special Boat Unit vessels are bad newsfor illegal fishermen.
Set up four years ago with funding from theUS government, which also donated the gunboats and provided Navy SEALtraining, the unit’s mission is to patrol the near-2,000-kilometre(1,243-mile) coast of the strategically located province.
Combatinghuman trafficking is one part of its mission, but most of its time andresources is spent on trying to stop poaching of rare fish and otherendangered wildlife in and around Palawan, which lies astride the SouthChina Sea.
“Without those (gunboats) the poachers would belaughing at us,” said the unit’s chief administrative officer, InspectorBryan Espinosa.
But the unit has an Achilles heel, or two: with just six boatsand a tiny fuel budget from an under-funded police force, it cannot comeclose to adequately patrolling the waters around Palawan and into theSouth China Sea.
“The area is too vast to be patrolled,” Espinosa conceded.
– Small boats make big diplomatic waves –
Nevertheless,the boat unit has been involved in the arrests of hundreds offishermen, many of them foreigners, and busts involving Chinese andVietnamese crews have sent diplomatic shockwaves across the South ChinaSea.
Most recently, the unit last month arrested 9 Chinesefishermen in hotly contested South China Sea waters off Palawan andseized their boat, which police said contained hundreds of endangeredhawksbill sea turtles, many of them dead.
Most of the unit’s work is restricted to just off the coast of Palawan, which is indisputably Philippine territory.
Howeverthe Chinese bust occurred more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) offPalawan in a part of the South China Sea that the Philippines insists ithas sovereign rights over but is also claimed by China, Vietnam,Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The arrests fuelled a decades-longbut increasingly bitter row between the Philippines and China over theircompeting claims to parts of the sea, and the Chinese governmentdemanded the fishermen be immediately released.
China insists ithas sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, includingwaters more than 1,000 kilometres from its most southern major landmassand just 40 or 50 kilometres from Palawan.
The Philippinegovernment has held its ground in the case, maintaining the fishermenmust be brought to justice for harvesting a rare and protected species, acrime that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.
The crew of the Chinese boat have appeared in court at PuertoPrincesa, the capital of Palawan, for initial proceedings in what isexpected to be a lengthy judicial process. They have pleaded not guilty.
They are in the provincialjail with dozens of Vietnamese arrested near Palawan’s most southern tipin waters that indisputably belong to the Philippines.
Twelve of those fishermen offered last week to switch to guilty pleas and pay fines in exchange for their immediate release.
The court did not give an immediate decision but chief Palawan state prosecutor Alen Rodriguez said plea bargains were common.
“Bringing about convictions is quite easy, especially as they often resort to plea bargains,” Rodriguez told AFP.
In 2011, the boat unit wasalso involved in a joint operation with the military that led to thearrest of 122 Vietnamese, the biggest illegal fishing bust in recentmemory. They served jail terms of about six months, then were sent home.
Rodriquez said most foreigners charged with illegal fishing served sentences ranging from six months to four years.
TheChinese detained last week face longer prison terms because their caseinvolves an endangered species, rather than just illegal fishing.
Fishermenfrom China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnamhave for centuries shared the South China Sea’s riches, mostlypeacefully.
But in recentdecades, competition for increasingly scarce fish stocks has heightenedas populations in Asian nations have boomed, forcing fishermen to travelfurther from home and closer to foreign coasts for their hauls.
“Theyknow fully well that they are fishing beyond their territorial waters.Their vessels are equipped with GPS (global positioning system),” saidthe boat unit’s spokesman, Inspector Raymond Abella.
– Boat unit grows, but not enough –
The unit is expanding, with a new station being built near Malaysia and another one planned for the sea border with Indonesia.
However Abella conceded this still would not be nearly enough to counter the growing problem of foreign fishing incursions.
“We know it remains rampant,” he said.
“Palawanhas a lot of resources that are no longer available where they comefrom, and it is relatively easy to get them. They know that policinghere is not as strict, that’s why they continue to come here.”
Meanwhile, there are no police gunboats to patrol the rest of the country’s coastline, the fourth longest in the world.
Thesafeguarding of marine resources along the rest of the Philippines’coastline is left to the poorly equipped navy and coastguard, which isgenerally preoccupied with other duties.
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