(File photo)

A fisherfolk group Monday said it is worried that the bill seeking to declare certain features in the West Philippine Sea as marine protected areas would “sweepingly cover municipal fisherfolk, while failing to prevent Chinese and foreign poachers in our territorial waters.”

The Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) warned that House Bill 6373 which seeks to declare all areas within the three nautical miles from the baselines surrounding the Kalayaan Group of Islands and Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) as marine protected areas, filed by Palawan 3rd District Representative Edward S. Hagedorn would restrict municipal fishers and not China.

“While we acknowledge the objective of the bill to protect the major features in the West Philippine Sea against destructive fishing practices, we fear that this might sweepingly cover small fishers, as the proposed marine protected areas will be within the municipal waters,” Fernando Hicap, PAMALAKAYA National Chairperson said in a statement.

PAMALAKAYA said the three nautical miles are equivalent to almost six kilometers of the 15-kilometer municipal fishing grounds.

“We will be vigilant of this bill that could restrict Filipino fishers from their traditional fishing grounds while actually failing to prevent China and other foreign fleets from conducting large-scale fishing, among other destructive activities beyond the municipal waters,” Hicap said.

The group also called on the national government to instead reiterate the UN arbitral ruling recognizing the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea that would make such measures, “unnecessary.”

“There would be no need to explore risky alternative measures because there’s already the international tribunal which is actually our strongest legal claim that we could enforce against China’s continued usurpation of our territorial waters. But it needs decisive action from the Marcos government and sincerity to uphold our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” added Hicap.

The fishers’ group said they will study the House Bill and consult with its chapters in Southern Tagalog and Zambales, as well as with marine scientists regarding the potential impacts of the measure.

Meanwhile, Hagedorn said that what he is pushing for in his bill is the protection of the three-nautical mile zone which serves as breeding ground of the fish that benefits not only the Philippines but other countries in the South China Sea.

He also explained that around 60 MPAs throughout the country are within municipal waters which are prone to destruction.

“Ang problema, bakit parang nili-limit natin yung municipal waters? Kasi mismong tayong mga lokal na mangingisda ang malakas sumira ng likas yaman sa dagat. Hindi natin pwedeng pabaayaang mangyari yan dahil 34 percent ng coral reefs sa buong mundo ay nandyan. Ang estimate nga ay 10-12 percent ng fish harvest sa buong mundo ay galing dyan,” Hagedorn said.

That’s why ne need to protect that, not only from foreign fishers. All MPAs are within the municipal waterws because it needs protection, kaya talagang mas lalong dapat pangalagaan ang Spratlys,” he added.

He also said fishing activities will not be totally prohibited in the area.

Just like other MPAs, small fishermen can still enter provided that they use legal and not destructive methods of fishing,” he said.

Hagedorn also said that while the bill will strengthen the country’s claims in the area, it does not intend to meddle with international dispute in WPS but for the protection of coral reefs and atolls, and the fishing grounds.

Instead, he said he sees the bill as a uniting force for all stakeholders to be one in protecting the area.

In terms of our exclusive economic zone, we have national agencies which handles that concern,” he said.

At the Sangguinang Panlalawigan, Board Member Rafael V. Ortega, Jr. filed a resolution expressing support to the bill.

Ortega also said he sees that the bill is a necessary step to assert and protect the country’s claims in WPS.

He added that while no one can predict China’s reactions, what the Philippines needs is to establish another layer of legal basis for its claims.

“Kung hindi nila igagalang yung ating batas, wala tayong magagawa doon. Pero on our end, kailangan nating mag-establish ng maraming legal basis para nang sa gayon, pag dumating yung time na mayroong panibagong arbitrary ruling, may maidadagdag tayong basehan,” he said.

Furthermore, he said the interest which PAMALAKAYA pushes is smaller compared to the purpose of the bill. “I think it is more favorable in the long run,” he said.

“Very specific in the bill the three nautical miles. And ibig sabihin, kung hindi maganda yung activity ng mangingisda, maski Pilipino yan, e bakit mo poproteksyunan kung sila mismo ay sinisira yung ating protected area?” he stated

“So hindi katuwiran na for the sake na mapagbigyan mo yung ating mga mangingisda ay ok na kahit masira yung ating karagatan. I think that’s absurd,” he added.