In the past, Larry Hugo and fellow fishermen from Pag-asa Island in Kalayaan municipality enjoyed unrestricted access to the four sandy cays near their shores for fishing endeavors.

However, in recent times, this freedom in the West Philippine Sea has been curtailed by the threat of encountering China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, which could intervene and obstruct their passage.

Hugo expressed heightened concern after spotting a CCG ship sailing a mere mile from Pag-asa on April 8, fearing potential harassment or even their small boats being hit, as they need to pass this area to reach another nearby fishing ground.

This fear is not unfounded; on January 25, 2021, Hugo and another small fishing boat were intercepted by CCG ship 5103 while en route to Sandy Cay 2. Deeply affected by the incident, Hugo admitted abstaining from visiting the sandy cays for a while until he felt comfortable enough to resume fishing there.

Recently, his concern has resurfaced after observing a CCG ship, followed by what seemed to be a maritime militia vessel, passing directly in front of Pag-asa’s breakwater.

Hugo, the president of the Kalayaan Palawan Farmers and Fisherfolks Association, said the increasing proximity of these ships is alarming.

“Hindi po maganda kasi nga umiiwas na kami doon sa mga barko nila sa may Sandbars 1, 2, 3, and 4.  Ngayon, dito na naman sila kung saan tawiran namin papuntang kabilang bahura na pangisdaan namin,” Hugo told Palawan News.

“Bka mamaya pag pirmanente na yung daanan nila na yan, delikado sa amin na mga mangingisda. Baka mabangga kami ng barko [ng China],” he explained.

The current situation of CCG ships passing within a mile of their shores is unprecedented compared to the past when they typically sailed two miles or more away.

This increasing approach is raising concerns for their safety. With 43 boats operated by 72 fishermen in their municipality, Hugo fears that if the presence of CCG ships and its maritime militia vessels becomes more frequent, they might eventually be unable to fish.

“As president ng samahan ng mangingisda, hindi na ako pumapayag na lagi kami mangisda doon [sandbars], minsan na lang kami makarating doon. Sa isang linggo, minsan isang beses na lang,” he said.

“Dito na lang sa kabila ng isla kami nangingisda, tapos dadaanan na naman ng barko ng Chinese? Ayaw naming mga mangingisda na daanan ng barko yong lugar kung saan doon kami madalas mangisda,” he said, calling on the national government to help their situation before they lose their livelihood.

He voiced concerns about Chinese ships turning their fishing grounds into a highway and called on the national government to help their situation before they lose their livelihood.

He proposed that the government take action by deploying personnel from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to provide them with alternative livelihood ideas and by providing boats to the Philippine Coast Guard and maritime police personnel for patrolling around the island.

In March this year, CCG ships, accompanied by a deployed helicopter, forced Filipino marine scientists and journalists to leave one of the sandy cays near Pag-asa Island, the primary administrative center of Kalayaan.

Gan Yu, spokesperson for the CCG, stated that they disregarded warnings not to occupy the feature, which they call Tiexian Reef.

At the time, the marine scientists from the University of the Philippines, BFAR, and the Department of Agriculture-National Fisheries Research and Development Institute (DA-NFRDI) were in the area in the West Philippine Sea to commence a study on the biodiversity of the four sandy cays, one of which was suspected of having broken corals reportedly gathered by China for dumping into areas undergoing reclamation to construct facilities.