A dock worker uses a mallet to dislodge frozen tuna aboard a Chinese cargo vessel docked at the city of General Santos in the Philippines. The cargo vessel spends up to two months at sea with a fleet of a dozen tuna boats working to fill its freezer. Photo: Adam Dean / National Geographic

By Rachael Bale
29 August 2016

PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines (National Geographic) – Years ago Christopher Tubo caught a 660-pound blue marlin in the South China Sea. The fishing was good there, he says. Tuna fishermen would come home from a trip with dozens of the high-value fish as well as a good haul of other species.

“Here there’s none of that,” he says, looking toward the Sulu Sea, the Philippine sea where he’s been fishing for the past four years. His two boats, traditional Filipino outriggers called bancas, float in the shallow water nearby, new coats of white paint drying in the sun.

Tubo is sitting on a wooden bench in front of his home, which perches on stilts above the bay. One of his four kids wraps an arm around his leg. Worn T-shirts and shorts flutter on clotheslines behind them.

Glancing over at his wife, Leah, and the other children, he says, “It’s just chance, whether or not we can feed our families now.”

Tubo lives in Puerto Princesa, a city of 255,000 on Palawan, a long finger of an island that faces the Sulu Sea and the Philippine archipelago to the east and the contested South China Sea to the west. He’s one of the nearly 320,000 fishermen in the Philippines who have traditionally made their livelihoods from the South China Sea—and one of a growing number who are now fishing in other waters because of increasing Chinese interference. Beginning around 2012, China adopted a more assertive posture in the sea’s long-running territorial dispute, building military installations on contested islands and increasingly using its coast guard to intimidate fishermen from other countries.

It was after a Chinese coast guard vessel attacked a friend’s fishing boat with water cannons that Christopher Tubo stopped fishing the South China Sea.

“One minute you’ll see an airplane, the next thing there’s a naval boat,” he says, describing how the Chinese attempt to keep fishermen from other countries out of the disputed area. “If we kept going over there, maybe we won’t be able to go home to our families.”

“As they see it, it’s theirs now, and Filipinos are forbidden,” says Henry Tesorio, an elected councilor for a fishing village in Puerto Princesa.

Vietnamese fishermen could say the same thing. Some 200 Vietnamese from the island of Ly Son, 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the mainland, reported being attacked by Chinese boats in 2015, according to local Vietnamese government officials. [more]

One of the World's Biggest Fisheries Is on the Verge of Collapse

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