PUERTO PRINCESA CITY - The mounting tension between the Philippines and China over the Spratlys, reaching new heights with the arrest of 11 Chinese fishers by Philippine maritime police at the disputed Hasa-Hasa Shoal, has overshadowed indications of a rapidly growing international syndicate behind sea turtle poaching, according to Palawan environmentalists and military sources.
The Chinese vessel was caught on Monday by a Philippine National Police Maritime patrol loaded with at least 500 marine turtles, classified internationally as either endangered or critically endangered, depending on species.
A group of local fishermen from the Palawan town of Balabac was also arrested in the same vicinity, again suspected to be engaged in turtle poaching.
As China demanded the outright release of their citizens, Philippine prosecutors went ahead on Friday night with legal procedures to book the Chinese fishers for violation of Philippine laws on poaching of endangered and critically endangered marine turtles.
The prosecutor's office ordered their detention at the Palawan Provincial Police headquarters jail pending the preliminary investigation of the case for violation of Philippine fisheries laws.
Regional analysts are expecting the Hasa-Hasa incident, along with a string of recent incidents that displayed China's aggressive behaviour to control nearly the entire South China Sea, to become a topic at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministers' meeting.
Arrested alongside the Chinese was a group of five local fishers who were booked for poaching, separately with the Chinese, also on Friday.
They were identified by the PNP Maritime Police as Romantic Poyong Amlain, Pusein Amlain, Arturo Asuncion, Kennedy Cahawy and Hussein Baldosa, all residents of Bataraza town, Palawan.
Tagged internationally as Half Moon Shoal, this area in the disputed Spratlys was identified by a military source as a favoured "buying station" by Chinese buyers and conniving Filipino fishers.
It was also the site where a Chinese frigate was grounded last year, sparking a diplomatic protest from the Philippines.
"The Chinese boats don't want to come closer to Palawan shores. They prefer to meet up with their suppliers at Hasa-Hasa (approximately 100 kilometers off Rizal town in southern Palawan)," said the military officer who asked not to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Filipino poachers, according to the source, capture sea turtles around Balabac Strait known among marine conservationists as a "turtle corridor" in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas.
They collect and store the turtles near the shore before selling these in bulk to the Chinese at prices ranging from P15,000 to P30,000 per turtle depending on their sizes, according to the informant.
The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a local agency tasked with implementing the Philippine Wildlife Act in Palawan, acknowledged that the syndicated operation involving foreign buyers and local suppliers exists.
"That trade has been going on for some time. Usually there's a mother boat positioned just outside the Philippine territorial waters that collect the turtles," PCSD legal counsel Adel Villena told the Inquirer.
The military informant added that smaller and faster boats operated by the Chinese sometimes even reach village shores to meet up with suppliers and haul the marine turtles.
Asked if the report submitted by the apprehending officer had indications that the Chinese vessel was equipped with nets and related fishing paraphernalia, Palawan provincial prosecutor Allen Ross Rodriguez told the Inquirer "there was none."
Rodriguez also noted that the Chinese boat captain spoke Filipino.
"The boat captain even turned out to be conversant in Filipino," Rodriguez said in an interview on Friday.
The Chinese nationals opted to waive their rights in order to question their arrest in the course of the preliminary investigation of the case.