MANILA – Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol on Tuesday apologized for the fishery bureau's advise for Filipino fishermen to refrain from venturing into the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) following reports of harassment by China.
Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Director Eduardo Gongona was quoted as saying over the weekend that fishermen should refrain from going to the rich fishing ground in the disputed South China Sea and concentrate instead on municipal waters.
"I actually called his attention [that] it is a policy statement and only the President can make such comment so we apologize for that," Piñol told reporters.
"We are not discouraging our fishermen from going to the Panatag Shoal. They are allowed to fish wherever they are allowed to fish," he added.
Senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares last month released a Facebook video in which 2 Filipino fishermen detailed how the Chinese Coast Guard seized their catch and drove them away from the shoal off Zambales.
The Philippine government will "definitely" protest the supposed harassment of fishermen, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo earlier said.
"We will not allow fishermen, countrymen to be harassed by any foreign entity," he said.
Scarborough, called by Filipinos as Panatag Shoal and by the Chinese as Huangyan Island, was the site of a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China. The standoff erupted when Manila sent its biggest warship to chase off Chinese poachers.
China gained effective control of the shoal after Manila withdrew its vessel. It then started blocking Filipino fishermen from the shoal.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to Beijing lowered tensions in the area, with Chinese President Xi Jinping himself promising to allow Filipino fishermen back into the rocky outcrop.
But fishermen said China continued to have control over the shoal despite the decision of a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in 2016, which declared the area as a traditional fishing ground for both China and the Philippines.
The shoal is a potential flashpoint in the disputed sea, as maritime experts said Beijing was eyeing to build another artificial island there to fully cement its control of the vital waterway.
–With a report from April Rafales, ABS-CBN News