Filipino fishermen face double burden of COVID and Chinese expansion



China’s expansion into contested waters in the South China Sea has been a longtime problem for fishing communities in the Philippines. Now, a pandemic-fueled economic downturn has made things even worse.

Flaring tensions in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and coronavirus-related lockdown measures complicating distribution of fish catches, are threatening the survival of Filipino fishermen, according to activists.

Members of BIGKIS, a collective of fishermen from the northern fishing provinces of Zambales and Pangasinan, have said the presence of Chinese boats in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) hampers their fishing activities.

In addition, quarantine-related checkpoints prevent the transport of catch from closer municipal waters to larger fishing markets, forcing the collective to sell their catch at a loss.

Vicente Pauan, 35, told DW that fishers like him had been affected by China’s “aggressive” encroachment in the South China Sea since 2012, when Beijing started building military structures on islands and atolls in the region.

“We do not even have enough fish to feed our families. We sell at a loss and are buried in debt. We will starve,” Pauan said.

Alternative livelihoods such as construction work have disappeared because of the economic slowdown brought on by a prolonged pandemic lockdown.

“Our fishermen are cornered. We are not only speaking about livelihood here but also the right to live,” Ria Teves, president of the grassroots NGO Peoples Development Institute, told DW.