Death of a fishing village

Children playing on the last fishing boat in Masinloc to have sailed to Scarborough Shoal.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Just offshore, tied up at a cement pier no bigger than a basketball court, a 10m wooden fishing boat bobs in a gentle swell, never to put to sea again.

A geo-political storm, centring on China's territorial claims to the South China Sea, is preventing it from sailing from this sleepy town, 250km north of Manila, to what fishermen here describe as the closest thing to an "Eden" of the sea.

The reef that rings that postcard-perfect lagoon may protect the turquoise waters from the Pacific's many typhoons, but Scarborough Shoal is now off limits to the proud fishermen from this town with a 400-year maritime history.

The tethered boat is the last of the ocean-going vessels to be sold, and when it's gone, Masinloc will no longer see the blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, red grouper and lobsters that lit up the sunburnt faces of the intrepid few who ventured a day's sailing from home.

Those beaming smiles are no more; brows furrow at the mention of what once was an idyllic lifestyle.

When China seized control of Scarborough in 2012, after a stand-off with the Philippines, Masinloc had to face up to a potentially bloody reality.

The grim prospect surfaced in April three years ago after a Philippine Navy frigate seized eight Chinese fishing boats suspected of poaching coral and giant clams around Scarborough. But before it could tow the boats to port, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships arrived.For two months, the Philippines and China were on the brink of war over clumps of rocks and a 150-sq-km body of water.

The US eventually mediated a deal. Both sides were told to withdraw from Scarborough. The Philippines pulled out its ships but China stayed and later roped off the mouth of the lagoon.

Scarborough used to be neutral ground despite competing claims. Boatmen from the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Taiwan would gather during the dry months from January to July to partake of the sea's bounty. They bartered petrol, food, water and cigarettes and shared laughs over stories only men of the sea would enjoy.

"We didn't have to speak Chinese to know what they wanted or to tell them what we needed," said Mr Jeffrey Elad, 40, a village elder who until April this year had led fishing expeditions to Scarborough.

Named after an East India Company tea clipper that ran aground there in 1784, Scarborough lies 125 nautical miles to the east of Masinloc, most of whose 50,000 residents had ancestors who worked the sea for a living. Now, only about 2,000 head out every morning, but never beyond the safety of their own bay.

Since 2012, the Chinese have kept away fishermen from Masinloc and a few other towns in La Union and Pangasinan provinces farther north.

The boatmen have had to look inland for jobs. Many have traded their nets and paddles for motorised rickshaws, passenger jeeps, livestock and farms. A 600MW coal-fired power plant, commissioned in 1998, has supplanted fishing as Masinloc's lifeline.

Thousands work at the plant's 137ha compound. They, in turn, create an ecosystem of odd jobs and mom-and-pop outlets that now make up Masinloc's modest economy. Some still keep close to the sea, running fish stalls, diving for shellfish and ornamental fish or ferrying occasional tourists around the bay.

Mr Pedro Manglicmot, 40, a fisherman who now spends most of his time serving as a councillor, said Scarborough used to promise easy money for those with the means to get there.

On a good week, two days of fishing around the shoal could yield a harvest worth up to 300,000 pesos (S$9,000) - 10 times the cost of the trip. That was why fishermen had been taking the risk to break through the Chinese blockade. But Mr Manglicmot said he has given up on Scarborough. The risk of losing his investment by betting that he can slip under China's nose is just too high.

He bristles at reports that the Chinese have been busy harvesting giant clams and corals from Scarborough, protected by their coast guard. "Pretty soon, they are going to clear Scarborough of what rightfully belongs to us. They are stealing from us," said Mr Manglicmot.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are staking ownership to parts of the South China Sea, a vital sea lane for trade worth about US$5 trillion (S$6.6 trillion) a year.

But China is claiming "indisputable sovereignty" over 80 per cent of it - waters enclosed by what it calls its "nine-dash line", a relic of the country's early 20th-century nationalist era. Scarborough is inside that line.

Once a regular fisherman, Mr Viany Mula, 43, now rents a motorcycle to make deliveries around Masinloc. He would gladly trade his rickshaw for a chance to set out to sea again, but most of the time his boat just sits idle, awaiting a buyer.

For Mr Elad, the village chief, his voyage to Scarborough in April was definitely his last. "It's over," he said.

Fierce contest

The Philippines and China are contesting 11 islets, reefs, shoals and atolls in the South China Sea.

Manila insists they are inside its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, but Beijingmaintains the rocky outcrops are within its nine-dash line, which encompasses 80 per cent of the South China Sea. The land features are in the Spratly archipelago in the southern half of the sea - Mischief and Commodore reefs, Second Thomas Shoal, Thitu, Loaita, Nansha, West York and Flat islands, and Lamkian and North East cays - and Scarborough Shoal north of the Spratlys. The two nations are also fighting for control of Reed Bank, an 8,000 sq km underwater plateau believed to be rich in oil and gas.


China has enforced a blockade since a stand-off with the Philippine Navy in 2012.


China built shelters in 1995 when the Philippine Navy pulled out due to monsoon rains. Satellite images show the Chinese have begun transforming it into an island.


The Philippine Navy ran a tank-landing ship onto the shoal in 1996 to prevent China from expanding further from the nearby Mischief Reef.


Philippine-administered Thitu, at 37ha, is the second- largest natural island in the Spratlys. China is reclaiming land to expand its holdings on Subi Reef, just 24km away.


China has chased away civilian ships sent to the area by the Philippines to explore for oil and gas.


Number of years of maritime history behind the little village of Masinloc, which is facing the threat of having its livelihood wiped out by China's claim to rich fishing grounds in the South China Sea.


Number of Masinloc villagers who head out to sea these days, a far cry from the 50,000 who earned their living as fishermen in the past.


What two days of fishing in the Scarborough Shoal area can earn a fisherman - about 10 times the cost of the trip - a reason why some fishermen had been risking their investments and trying to slip past the Chinese blockade to fish there.


This article was first published on Aug 04, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.