Chinese Incursions On the West Philippine Sea Impact on the Filipino Fisherfolk Lives and Welfare

Originally Published (2021/06/09)


Established in 1990, the Peoples Development Institute (PDI) is a nongovernmental organization whose mission is to establish self-reliant communities through people’s initiatives. PDI’s strategic intervention focuses on asset reform and economic support services coupled with social infrastructure building. PDI implements programs with three critical components: First is the access to resources (e.g. Land, water, marine and other natural resources, etc.) by farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples or IPs; second is providing support services to make their lands/resources productive; and lastly, organization building that is complemented with training and education to prepare key members of the communities to become leaders and entrepreneurs, actively participating in local governance.

PDI believes in the primordial importance of asset reform from land rights and our rights to our maritime regimes. Since 1991, PDI has established partnerships and successfully formed people’s organizations or POs, especially those that fight for farmers’, fisherfolks’ and indigenous people’s rights. In 2015, together with some POs, PDI became instrumental in building the PKKL, or the Pambansang Koalisyon ng Karapatan sa Lupa (National Coalition for Land Rights). PDI has been actively advocating for our fishers’ rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) since 2016 and later formed BIGKIS, the federation of fisherfolk in Zambales and Pangasinan.

In 2012, we saw the aggressive entry of the Chinese into the WPS and other economic fields such as mining and other investment prospects in Central Luzon, especially in Zambales. This was being done in partnership with the local government authorities and officials of state agencies. The opening of business opportunities for foreign and local investors directly affected the fishing rights pf the fisherfolk, especially in Zambales and Pangasinan, whose traditional fishing grounds in WPS were being encroached upon and harmed, especially by the Chinese.

Importance of the West Philippine Sea to Filipinos

According to a group of marine experts, Hazel Arceo et al., the WPS has been and remains as one of the most important fishing grounds in the Philippines, with substantial contribution to the national economy and to the social and economic wellbeing of coastal communities along its margins and even beyond its geographical extent. WPS is part of Philippine territory (P.D. 1596 and R.A. 9522). The WPS is composed of living shallow coral reefs with extensive marine biodiversity that support productive fisheries. (KIG---Kalayaan Island Group---comprised one-third of the total coral reefs in the Philippines). Besides being host to a rich marine biodiversity, coral reefs are considered to be one of the most productive marine ecosystems.

Scarborough Shoal, or Panatag Shoal, is a popular traditional fishing ground within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. A recent study showed that Scarborough Shoal could produce as much as 31 metric tons of fish per square kilometer of coral reef per year. Healthy coral reef areas closer to the mainland could produce between 15-20 metric tons per square kilometer per year (Alcala Ac, Russ G. 2002, Status of Philippine Coral Reef Fisheries, Asian Fisheries Science 15.177-192). Scarborough Shoal has shallow coral reefs and sand where fish abound. There are deep areas inside the shoal’s lagoon where commercial fishing boats can go into for protection during stormy weather. The fish found in the area are talakitok, lapu lapu, tarian, mulmol. There are also giant clams, large crabs, lobsters and other types of shells and mollusks.

Scarborugh Shoal is tiny compared to the entire KIG. Coral reefs in the whole KIG can potentially provide around 62,000 to 91,000 metric tons of fish per year. (Arceo Ho, Cabsan et al. 2020, Estimating the potential fisheries production of three offshore areas in the WPS, Philippines, Philippine Journal of Science, 149.647-658). This volume of fish could supply the fish needs of 1.6 to 2.3 million Filipinos per year.

Fifty-five percent of global marine fishing vessels operate in the South China Sea (SCS) and about 13-21 percent of annual global marine fish catch worth at least US$1.8 billion comes from SCS.

Cumulative catches from 2000 to 2014 show that 27 percent of total marine capture fisheries production in the Philippines comes from the WPS, while the estimated fisheries production from coral reefs in the KIG could potentially contribute another 3-5 percent to the total Philippine marine fisheries production.

With one-third of the total marine fish catch in the country coming from this region, government officials should refrain from downplaying the importance of the WPS as a major fishing ground and an important source of fish for the Filipinos.

Considering that 30 percent of total protein intake and 70 percent of the total animal protein intake by Filipinos come from fish, it is important that our fishers have unrestrained access to the productive fishing grounds in the WPS.

The Filipino Fisherfolk

Besides its contribution to food security, marine fisheries in the WPS provide employment to about 1.8 million people, most of whom are in the small-scale fishing sector. The fisherfolk have the second highest poverty incidence among the basic sectors in the Philippines. They are the most marginalized among the vulnerable sectors who live mostly in danger zone areas like the mangroves, rivers or in coastal zones. Although, they build their own shelters, most rent the land from other villagers, paying monthly rentals ranging from P1000 to P5000. Although they try with all their might to uplift the lives of their families, this task seems impossible to achieve as they sink deeper into hunger and poverty due to the situation not only in the WPS but also in the rest of the country.

The fishers’ dire living condition parallels the hardships they experience at sea. They face inhospitable weather in the open waters, being beaten by the scorching sun during the dry season or the fury of the sea during the monsoon, and the cold nights while separated from their families for days or weeks. Their sole consolation is that they can bring home enough fish catch for their families to survive for a week or two until they go out to the sea again. However, the Chinese prohibitions and virtual blockade in parts of the WPS, particularly Scarborough Shoal, and the lack of protection from the Philippine government are reflected in their dwindling catch. This has been the experience of the fishermen from Zambales and Pangasinan.

Zambales is the coastal province nearest to the shoal with a distance of about 120 nautical miles. Pangasinan is directly north of Zambales.

Zambales, which is part of Central Luzon, is composed of 13 municipalities. One of these is Masinloc, where the majority depend on fishing in the WPS. They are largely marginal fishermen.

Barangay Inhobol in Masinloc has two Sitios. The sitios of Balogo and Matalvis are the biggest fishing communities in Masinloc. Most of the people are migrants from the Visayas and Mindanao. Sitio Matalvis has a population of about 1,000. The men are small or marginal fishers or serve as workers or crew in commercial fishing vessels that fish at the WPS.

In the province of Pangasinan, the biggest fishing village is in the municipality of Infanta, in Barangay Cato. The village has 400 fishers who serve as workers, crew members or “pasaheros” in about 100 commercial fishing boats owned by Filipino or foreign capitalists.

Each commercial fishing vessel can carry 3-5 small fishing boats. This vessel is usually owned by the big capitalist in the municipality. This commercial fishers use “payao,” or artificial floating reefs, where they return to harvest the fishes after a certain period. The fish catch from the payao are brought to the commercial fishing boat (called “carrier”). Separately, small boats with the pasaheros are hoisted down to the water and using traditional fishing gear of hook and line or spear, they also contribute to the fish catch. The fish caught include galunggong, talakitok, barilyete or tuna, and “isdang bato” (like loro tarian).

Problems and Issues encountered by the Fishers:

1. In 1989, fishpens started to sprout in Oyen Bay in Masinloc. By 2000, these fishpens have been replaced by fish cages owned by foreign capitalists, mostly Chinese who use dummies (e.g. Mani Co) or local elites (e.g. Hilario, Estrada, etc.) who have the money to spend P100,000.00 to put up one fish cage. The amount is aside from what is spent for maintaining the fish cages. These fish cages now proliferate from Palauig to Masinloc municipalities in Zambales due to a program under the Agricultural Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) of the Department of Agriculture (DA). The fisherfolk can no longer fish in the municipal waters because of the presence of fish cages. The fish cages also block some passageways going to the open sea. In 2003, more than 1,000 small fishermen protested against fish cages in Masinloc in a fluvial parade with support from other sectors. They presented their grievances to the municipal council. However, their sentiments were not heard and until now there is a continuous expansion of fish cages in the province.

The feeds for the fish in the cages (typically bangus or milk fish) have also caused water pollution, which depleted oxygen in the water, had resulted in fish kills. People also are getting skin diseases from the chemical contamination of the water. The mangrove forests, which are home to crabs and shells, had been destroyed to make way for fish cage expansion. As a result, fishing areas where clams and corals that serve as home to fish and other marine life, had been occupied by the cages. Seaweeds and other marine plants, crabs and corals are overwhelmed by feed waste that turn into silt and mud.

All these cause the fish catch to go down. Before, a fisher could get 30 kilos of clams per catch now, he only gets 5 kilos of “reject” quality. Worst, this affected their health condition because of the water contamination. This condition pushed the marginal fishers to go out to other areas to fish resulting in higher costs (in fuel, ice, food at sea) but with minimal returns.

On June 22, 2018, the Masinloc Oyon Bay Protected Landscape and Seascape under R.A. 11038 was passed into law that turned 7,558 hectares of waters into protected areas in Masinloc and Palauig. It established a Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) consisting of the DENR, BFAR and LGU and fisherfolk representatives. But the PAMB was weak and could not prevent the expansion of the fish cages in Zambales.

In 2018, Chinese vessels named Hornet 1, Hornet 2, Hammer 9, Hammer 10 and Pacific No. 9 started dredging the waters in Oyon Bay. The dredging caused additional hardship to the fishers as the Oyon Bay was the remaining fishing area in Masinloc and Palauig.  This year, two more Chinese dredging vessels were added --- Zhonghai 69 and the other with Chinese characters which the fishermen could not read.

Meanwhile, the LGU allowed the Chinese vessels to dredge in Philippine territorial waters and passed ordinances that made it difficult for small fishermen to access marine resources in the municipal and territorial seas.


2. Incidents of China’s aggression against Filipino fisherfolk

The first recorded incident was said to be on Feb. 25, 2011 when three Philippine fishing vessels that were navigating along Jackson Atoll were approached by Chinese vessels and announced through their ship radio that the area was Chinese territory and the Filipino fishing vessels were asked leave immediately or they would be shot[1]. Other incidents were reported --- of Filipino shipping vessels being driven away or of Chinese occupation of islands or of Chinese vessels continued presence until May 2011. On May 24, (what year?) an alarming activity in the South China Sea was spotted by Filipino fishermen. In an AFP report, they saw Chinese ships unloading construction materials and erecting posts and deploying buoys near the islands[2].

On June 9, 2019, a Chinese fishing vessel deliberately rammed a Filipino vessel causing it to sink and leaving the 22 fishermen struggling to survive in the water[3]. This attack alarmed a number of Filipinos, including then Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and law expert on Law of the Sea Jay Batongbacal, who referred to the ramming as an “unprecedented” incident and the first time a deliberate attack was done by the Chinese against Filipinos. Defense Secretary Lorenzana also condemned the Chinese vessel’s action[4].

In 2012, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) prohibited Filipinos from fishing in the Scarborough Shoal. They were chased away by the CCG and bombarded by water cannon. Filipino fishermen were frightened and stopped fishing in the area.

In 2018, three fishermen, Jurry Drio, Jr Ermita Jr. and Delfin Egana, were aboard their small boat fishing near Panatag Shoal when Chinese militia on a speed boat harassed them, bombarding them with a water cannon and forcibly confiscating all their fishing gear and ransacking their cooler. The Chinese took all the big and expensive fish that the Filipinos had caught, leaving as “barter” cigarettes, water, liquor, bread and expired canned goods. This reported intimidation and harassment reached Malacanang, which called three fishermen to make a statement about their experience. However, presidential spokesman Harry Roque downplayed the incident and said to the press that only a barter exchange occurred between the CCG and the Filipino fisher folk.

The Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest against China after the CCG allegedly confiscated fishing devices of Filipino fishermen near Panatag Shoal in May 2020[5].

The latest incident which displayed China’s aggressiveness toward Filipino fishermen took place on January 26, 2021, when a fisherman who was sailing to the sandbars near Pag-asa Island was blocked by a CCG ship, preventing him from approaching the sandbars[6].


3. Giant clams were dredged by the Chinese from Panatag Shoal causing the destruction of coral reefs in the area.

4. A pier was built in barangay Cato and another wharf/pier is being built in barangay North Lucapon in Sta. Cruz, Zambales, owned by the barangay chairman.

5. A nickel mine is being operated at a mountain ridge in Cato, a while the WestChinaMain is operating a ferro-nickel plant and mining project in Candelaria, Zambales.



Effect and Impact on Filipino Fishers and the communities


While China expands and tightens its hold over the West Philippine Sea, despite the arbitral award that invalidated China’s claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, the fishing industry has been bearing the bigger brunt of the dispute as it continues to experience losses. The continued presence of Chinese vessels and the constant blocking of Filipino fishermen have affected both the fishing industry and the livelihood of Filipino families who depend on the sea for their livelihood.


1. Environmental destruction.


The destruction of the coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea negatively impacts the fishing industry and can cost an estimated 3 million fishermen their jobs[1]. A National Geographic article explained that the destruction of reefs can be detrimental to our ecosystem because when reefs are destroyed, the fish living there lose their habitat and an important source of food[2]. The fish will abandon these areas and look for other reefs to inhabit. Damaged reefs mean less fish to catch and can ultimately lead to the collapse of the fishing industry in Zambales and Pangasinan.

Mine tailings cascading down from the mountain contaminate the rivers, a lake and the municipal waters, killing the fish and other living resources. Farmers, too, are affected as agricultural land become parched and acidic.


2. Economic Impact: Loss of livelihood

The marginal fishermen and their families suffer further hunger and impoverishment from the Chinese encroachments. Before the Chinese incursions, according to Pangasinan fisherman Christopher De Vera, their catch reached 2-3 tons of various type of high value fish. After the CCG and Chinese militia prohibited them from fishing in the Philippines’ own EEZ, their catch dwindled. Ten days at sea can only earn them about P150,000. From that total amount, the capital (fuel, ice for preserving freezing the fish, food and water for 12 workers and crew members) will be deducted amounting to P50,000. The remaining P100,000 will be divided between the boat owner and the 12 crew members and workers. Fifty percent goes to the owner amounting to P50,000. The remaining P50,000 will be divided to the 12, with each one getting only P4.166.00 for their labor. Usually, these crew members/workers also owe the boat owner in cash advances of at least P2,000 to be given to their families before they go out to sea. After paying the loan, a fisherman is left with P2,166 to be used to immediately buy a half sack of rice worth P1,050, and to pay the sari-sari store where his family made purchases on credit. They also have to pay for house rent. After all the payments, the fishermen are left with almost nothing, hoping that their families can survive until their next fishing venture.

Pasaheros bring their own small fishing boats on large commercial fishing vessels. One of them, Roonie Drio, said that his catch would be weighed by the head of the crew who sets the amount of P40-50.00 per kilo for high-value fish like lapulapu. Drio brings home at most P6,000.00 after 10 days at sea. Paying his cash advances to the boat owner leaves him with P4,000. After buying a half sack of rice, he has P2,950 remaining to use to pay his debt to the sari-sari store. His house rental payment also leaves him almost cashless.

Both the crew/workers and the pasaheros are disallowed from taking even a single fish as they are paid in cash. All the fish catch is owned by the capitalist.

According to fisherman Vicente Paluan, his family cannot afford a home of their own, or pay for their health care nor his children’s education, clothes and proper diet and nutrition.

Due to the travel prohibition during the lockdown, the fish catch cannot be transported to Manila. It is sold at a very cheap price in the village to traders.


3. Social Impact: Psychological trauma

Most of the fishers who had gone to the West Philippine Sea and who experienced harassment and intimidation from the Chinese, have psychological trauma. Some abandoned fishing and do not want to go out to the sea at all. Others like JR Ermita live in constant fear, afraid for his life. Delfin Egana cannot sail because every time he sees a ship, he has an anxiety attack and panic. The deep-rooted impact into the psyche of Filipino fishermen who feel that they were abandoned by the government and left on their own at the height of the conflict in the WPS were paralyzed into inaction when the Chinese fired water cannon at them, and chased, harassed and intimidated.


4. Political Impact:


There was lack of governance over the natural resources in the WPS because of the ongoing conflict.

In 2016 during the Presidential Elections, President Rodrigo Duterte promised to fight for Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea even promising that he would jet ski to an island held by the Chinese and plant the Philippine flag[3]. Five years have passed and the President has yet to fulfill that promise. What the Filipino people was told, instead, by the President himself was that China has possession of the WPS and that we cannot do anything about it[4]. He said his statement was just a joke and part of election campaign “bravado,” and that anyone who believed him was “really stupid.” Over the years, critics of the President say he is being subservient to China.


BIGKIs, the fisherfolk federation in Zambales and Pangasinan, is demanding that the Philippine government respect and protect their fishing rights. They urge the national government to adopt a more assertive and responsive pro-Filipino approach to manage the WPS and to enlighten the public on the critical role of the region for ecological resilience, food security and sustainable development.

Reclaiming and gaining possession the WPS and the Philippine EEZ could expand our economy and also create more jobs not just for fishermen but other Filipinos as well, once the country is able to open up opportunities to different industries linked to marine resource exploration and exploitation. In short, Filipinos want their government to put their greater interest as top priority.

The government should level up its efforts in reclaiming what is rightfully ours by asserting Philippines sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. But first and foremost, it must have a definitive and clear stance on the maritime dispute with China. President Duterte’s administration has been spending a huge chunk of our budget on military upgrades. Therefore, increased military presence in the West Philippine Sea should be done, including the patrol of the Philippine maritime regimes. The Philippine government should be proactive in protecting and defending the rights of all Filipinos.

We recommend to support the call of the Filipino fisherfolk to respect, protect and defend their fishing rights in the maritime regimes in general and in the WPS in particular.

In this juncture, we propose to conduct research specifically on the environmental, social-economic and political impacts on the maritime regimes especially in the WPS due to Chinese incursion, conduct development programming for the coastal fishing communities and do capacity building measures through organizing, training and education to the fisherfolk members of BIGKIS in Zambales, Bataan and Pangasinan. Critical to this undertaking is the immediate response to the urgent needs of the fishing communities.

[1] Id.
[2][2] Bale, Rachel, One of the World’s Biggest Fisheries Is on the Verge of Collapse, National Geographic, August 29, 2016, available at
[3] Calonzo, A. and Batino, C. “Rodrigo Duterte pledges to jet ski to a disputed South China Sea island”, Sydney Morning Herald, May 3, 2016, available at
[4] Venzon, C. “Duterte says Beijing is ‘in possession’ of South China Sea”, Nikkei Asia, July 27, 2020, available at


[1] Thayer, Carlyle, China’s New Wave of Aggressive Assertiveness in the South China Sea, pp. 5 – 8, (2011).
[2] Id.
[3] Talabong, R. and III Esmaquel, P. “Timeline: Sinking of Filipino boat in West PH Sea by Chinese ship”, Rappler, June 19, 2019, available at
[4] Esmaquel III, P. “Sinking of Filipino vessel ‘a first’ in Philippines-China row”, Rappler, June 12, 2019, available at
[5] Tomacruz, S. “PH protests China confiscation of Filipino fishermen’s devices”, Rappler, August 20, 2020, available at
[6] Mangosing, F. “Filipno fisherman narrates harassment by China Coast Guard near Pag-asa Island”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 26, 2021, available at


Another Chinese “coast guard” vessel identified by fishermen.