A Filipino fishing association estimates that about 30% of some 4,000 fishermen have been affected by the closing of the Scarborough Shoal.
Efren Forones jumped from his chair when he saw the news report on TV.
Boats were coming back from Scarborough Shoal. Fishermen were wading through shallow waters carrying buckets spilling over with fish.
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“It is true! It is open!” the 55-year-old fisherman yelled to his bewildered family.
It had just been a little over a week since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came back from a state visit to China, and already his realignment from Washington to Beijing appeared to be bearing fruit. Chinese vessels had stopped their blockade of a vital Philippine fishing ground, bringing the hope of renewed prosperity to a western coastal swath of Luzon island.
Seeing the fishermen on TV with their catch fired up Forones’ old memories of his days in the fertile fishing grounds.
It had been three years since he had last been to Scarborough Shoal.
But the joy that the announcement brought to fishermen like Forones was soon tempered by a realization: Nothing that the Chinese and Filipino presidents had discussed about the shoal was binding. The blockade could be reimposed at any time. And no one was compensating the fishermen for all that they had lost.
Forones grew up a fisherman like his father before him. He started sailing the sea when he was 12, finding in it a source of adventure, food and good money. There was no need for school, nor was there time. He was always out fishing and the sea provided everything he needed — until it didn’t.
In 2012, the Chinese Coast Guard seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a triangular chain of reefs and rocks surrounding a lagoon in a disputed portion of the South China Sea.