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Sea Sunday, fishermen and the West Philippine Sea

Column box-Dennis Gorecho

Matamlay. Sluggish.

This was how Taytay Apostolic Vicar-designate Bishop Broderick Pabillo described the government’s treatment of Filipino fishermen despite the favorable arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) territorial dispute.

During his homily last Sea Sunday, Bishop Pabillo challenged the government to stand up for Filipino fishermen as part of its duty to protect its citizens and its territory.

“Matamlay ang panindigan ng ating pamahalaan para sa kanila,” Bishop Pabillo said. “Nandiyan ang mga maliliit nating mangingisda. Isa sila sa sector ng ating lipunan na pinakamahirap. Wala silang proteksyon na natatanggap sa ating pamahalaan. Ang issue ng West Philippine Sea ay nagpapakita na hindi naipagtatanggol ang ating mga mangingisda kahit na sa territory mismo natin.”

Pabillo has been vocal in reminding the Philippine government not to allow itself to be bullied and let its people suffer, as he cited the partial sinking of a Philippine fishing boat, F/B GEM-VER, near Recto Bank on June 9, 2019.

Pabillo earlier criticized the government’s attempt to downplay and sanitize the issue by calling it “a simple maritime incident” in contrast to the initial statement of the Filipino fishermen that the Chinese vessel rammed and partially sank the Philippine fishing boat.

The homily was delivered a day before the fifth anniversary of the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, 2016, favoring the Philippines on most of its submissions on the West Philippine Sea dispute.

The Philippines initiated in January 2013 the arbitration case (Philippines v. China, PCA Case 2013-19) wherein it sought, among others, a declaration that the countries’ respective rights and obligations regarding the waters, seabed, and maritime features of the West Philippine Sea are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The decision declared that China’s historic rights claims over maritime areas inside the “nine-dash line” have no lawful effect as they exceed what they are entitled to under UNCLOS. There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources in areas falling within the “nine-dash line.”

The decision likewise noted that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its Exclusive Economic Zone by the construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands, interfering with Philippine fishing and hydrocarbon exploration, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the Philippines’ EEZ.

President Duterte said that his promise during 2016 election to ride a jet ski to challenge Chinese incursions in Philippine waters was a “pure joke” and that those who believed it were “stupid.” The dispute has greatly affected the livelihood of Filipino fishermen.

Pope Francis earlier said that “without the people of the sea, many parts of the world would starve.” People depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their sustenance as the fishing industry employs, directly or indirectly, more than 200 million people.

Sea Sunday is set every second Sunday of July by many Christian Churches as an international day of remembrance, prayer and celebration, and an opportunity to thank seafarers and fishermen who work tirelessly throughout the year, bringing us more than 90 percent of the goods we need. 

In a statement, the chaplains of Stella Maris Philippines offered their holy masses and prayers for the safety of the people of the sea.

“The sea has a sense of mystery. Its depth is a sight to behold. The sea sometimes is calm and placid. Sometimes it is violent and dangerous, striking fear in us. But the sea always returns to her former self, quiet, calm and reassuring. Our life is like a sea. Life presents many cruel trials and costly troubles. There is the term ‘rough sailing’ to describe a turbulent life.”

The Philippines is considered as the major supplier of maritime labor globally as it is estimated that there is one Filipino seafarer for every four to five complements on board a vessel at any time.

The estimated 519,031 deployed Filipino seafarers in 2019 per Philippine Overseas Employment Administration data remitted $6.539 billion or around P326.95 billion.

The sea-based sector’s remittances comprise at least 22 percent of the total dollar remittances of overseas Filipino workers.

Despite its glorification due to economic returns, the job of a seafarer is not exactly a walk in the park.

While delivering a key service to society, the maritime profession is not without incident or peril since it has always been identified as a high-risk workplace replete with health and safety hazards in relation to accidents, illnesses and mortality.

Let us pray for the safe voyage of seafarers and fishermen.

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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