MANILA — Fishermen residing in Pagasa Island have expressed their willingness to defend their fishing ground and vast maritime resources against illegal fishers and intruders.
Pagasa (known as Thitu internationally) is one of the islands lying in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Mary Joy Batiancila, Pagasa Island administrator, said that fisherfolks in the locality are deeply concerned with the illegal fishing activities being done by foreign fishermen around the island.
She said these illegal fishermen, particularly the Chinese and Vietnamese, were always seen using unauthorized means in fishing around Pagasa Island.
Batiancila said the Philippine Coast Guard, Pagasa barangay officials and their fishermen would regularly chase or warn these illegal fishers away.
“They are engaged in blast or dynamite fishing. They also use cyanide,” she added.
Batiancila said these illegal activities are ruining the natural ecosystem and physical makeup of the “bahura” or the coral reefs around Pagasa Island.
“This leads to a drop in the fish catch or incomes of our own fishermen,” she said.
Kalayaan town mayor Eugenio Bitoon-on said that these illegal fishing activities are made local officials of Kalayaan and Palawan alert and concern over the condition of the marine ecosystem in the West Philippine Sea.
The presence of such illegal fishing activities endangers the West Philippine Sea which is considered as one of the richest fishing grounds of the Philippines.
Batiancila said the area around Pagasa alone is abundant with turtles, dolphins, manta rays and various kinds of fish.
Pagasa is surrounded by around 20 to 30 hectares of rich coral reefs home to aquarium and commercial fish.
It provides livelihood and food for Pagasa’s more or less 200 dwellers. It is often visited by rare types of turtles like the endangered leatherback.
Just some three nautical miles away from Pagasa is the sandbar Pagasa Islanders call the “Secret Island”, Batiancila said.
The island is also home to teeming marine life which the Islanders are keeping watch over.
Pagasa is the nearest neighbor of Subi Reef, which is only 25.7 kilometers away. Subi Reef is now included among the areas in West Philippine Sea where the Chinese government is doing massive reclamation activities by building structures on and around it, destroying corals and hectares upon hectares of coral reefs in the process.
Bitoon-on said the Chinese seem bent on transforming the reef into a man-made island.
Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen often visit Subi Reef and the Secret Island to gather giant clams from the area.
Batiancila said recent surveys by Coast Guard and the local government revealed that there is a decline in the number of giant clams in there.
“We cannot perform arrests against them even though we have the maritime police with us. We do not have facilities and transportation to stand against them,” she said.
Batiancila said that the least their authorities could do is to chase away the illegal fishermen that they could.
“But we can never engage them,” she said.
Despite not having the right facilities, the people of Pagasa and the local officials of Kalayaan and Palawan expressed utmost support in protecting the natural treasures of West Philippine Sea.
Bitoon-on said he is thankful for the support that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Coast Guard give to the people of Pagasa.
He said he is confident that the people of Pagasa are secure and safe in their homes on the island.
He said among the projects of the municipality is creating a tourism route through West Philippine Sea which will include Pagasa Island.
Bitoon-on He added that the new industry would help generate more jobs and income for the people of Kalayaan Group of Islands.
AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, during his Monday visit to Pagasa Island, called on the people to continue supporting the claims of the Republic of the Philippines on the West Philippine Sea and all the islands in it.
“This is ours!” was the battle cry of AFP for the disputed territories.
He said the AFP is willing to support the agenda of enlivening tourism in the West Philippine Sea. He said Pagasa Island and the reefs around it alone has enough to offer for both domestic and international tourists.
He also assured that the AFP will remain protecting the island and its surrounding waters against any threats.