By Rolex Alvero Elmido
June 9 midnight: A hit-and-run incident took place at Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea, where a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing vessel, then abandoned the 22 crewmen floating in the cold waters until another vessel (reportedly Vietnamese) came to their rescue.
While the incident drew ire and indignation from the Filipinos against the Chinese, with a diplomatic protest filed and reports reaching the United Nations, there was one substantial matter that was not brought up or maybe conveniently ignored: The naked truth about the state of the Philippines’ fishing industry.
Let’s not yet look into the entire picture of the industry. Instead, let us examine closely the photo of the ill-fated Filipino boat — F/B GemVer I — that could mirror perhaps the real condition of the country’s fishing vessels today.
The F/B GemVer I is by all aspects smaller than the fishing vessels of the Chinese, or even that of the Vietnamese. It is also dilapidated, battered harshly by the elements of time and devastated by nature’s intangibles. It was never a boat more reliable as it was supposed to be to secure a good catch to feed the mouths of the fishermen’s families or to answer their economic needs.
That boat was more of a suicidal machine, made afloat by mere instincts of the fisherfolks who believed they have no other means but to survive in the remote yet hostile seas, unstable boat notwithstanding. How lonely is the plight of these people. They are more abandoned by a government agency than by the ramming foreign trawler in the middle of that dark night.
So the more pressing matter actually, apart from the despicable Chinese’s neglect, is also the accident’s “blind spot,” and that is the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) duties and responsibilities to the fishermen.
BFAR could not just shrug its shoulders off the Recto Bank incident; in fact, it should have shivered over the outcome of its long-drawn neglect on the state of the country’s fishermen.
Are these fishermen provided with the necessary means to acquire big and stable boats that would ensure them with bountiful harvests? Do they have the right tools (navigation alarms, flares, communication equipment, etc.) that would ensure their safety while in the open seas?
Compared to the Chinese, or to the Vietnamese, our fishing boats and fishermen are but a paltry version of the commercial activities in the West Philippine Sea. With the Filipinos’ stripped-down condition, the Chinese failed to notice their presence, resulting in the ramming and sinking incident.
This is not to justify the Chinese action, which is by all means detestable, inhuman and condemnable. This is also to pinpoint an apparent neglect of the government agency whose reason for being is to serve the fishermen and the industry. This blatant neglect is like laying out the route for an accident waiting to happen. And finally it did, unfortunately.
And please BFAR, don’t close your eyes on this matter and pray you won’t get noticed in the sidebar of the controversy. Ask yourself: Have I done the best to the constituents (fishermen) I am bound to serve? What have I done so far?
Let’s mention one issue on hindsight: the aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda. BFAR reported that, under its Ahon! Rehabilitation Initiative, a total of 30,000 repaired and newly built fishing boats were distributed to the affected fisherfolks in the MIMAROPA and the Visayas regions. Millions of pesos were involved in this, while thousands more boats were given by donors from various sources.
The number is awesome, as if the agency has a sense of heroic deed to help the fisherfolks out of the devastation of Yolanda. But then it only begs the question. Is the number the ultimate solution? Or are those boats, worth millions, seaworthy to enable the fishermen attain the desired harvest?
The millions of pesos spent by the government on these boats alone came to naught. Why? These were found to be not seaworthy, thus could not be utilized for productive fishing. What happened next was another disaster, more devastating than Yolanda: the thousands of boats, made of plywood, either got rotten in the piles along the coastlines or disappeared like thieves in the night.
Pffft! Nobody asked; nobody cares, except perhaps the fisherfolks whose voices however could only be drowned by the onslaught of BFAR’s whirlpool of neglect and disregard.
Meanwhile, BFAR owns big vessels to be used for sea patrol with the Maritime Police against illegal fishing in our seas. These are of course indispensable items for the agency’s compliance with its mandate of “development, improvement, management and conservation of the Philippines’ fisheries and aquatic resources.”
However, it is likewise indispensable for BFAR to tend to the basic needs of fishermen, so that they will not be victims of a hit-and-run negligence, as they partake of the divine providence in the ocean abounds.