Fishermen appeal to Duterte: Make Recto Bank exclusive to Filipinos

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The 22 Filipino fishermen abandoned in the open sea by Chinese crew after a boat ramming ask President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday to secure Recto Bank, which is within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 19) — The 22 Filipino fishermen abandoned in the open sea by Chinese crew after a boat ramming ask President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday to secure Recto Bank, which is within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

"The fishermen are also asking the President that the Recto Bank, which is their traditional fishing grounds, should be their exclusive fishing grounds. And government should help them secure the area," Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol said after his closed-door dialogue with the fishermen in Occidental Mindoro Wednesday.

Recto Bank, internationally known as Reed Bank, is only 85 nautical miles away from Palawan province.

A Chinese vessel rammed F/B GEM-VER near Recto Bank on June 10. The Chinese crew abandoned the Filipinos, forcing the local fishermen to stay afloat in the cold sea for almost three hours before a Vietnamese vessel passed by to rescue them. This is the latest reported incident of harassment of Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea within the country's EEZ.

Piñol said both the Chinese and Vietnamese vessel had no business poaching in the Philippine EEZ.

"They were actually poaching, including the Vietnamese ship that aided us. I'm sorry to say that. Salamat sa mga Vietnamese sa pagtulong, pero you were not supposed to be there. But thank God you were there. That was an illegal act that was providential," he said.

Piñol was tasked by the government to assist the aggrieved fishermen. He said the crew made another emotional request to make the Chinese captain and his crew accountable.

"Make representations with the Chinese government so the skipper — the captain — and crew of the Chinese vessel that figured in that maritime incident will be held accountable, criminally liable because of that act of abandonment," he said.

The captain of sunken F/B GEM-VER reiterated their group's appeal.

"Sana po 'yung bumangga sa amin, yung kapitan po, gusto ko pong mapanagot po ang kapitan, 'yun lang ang hiling ko sa mahal na Presidente... Ang sama ng loob ko kasi iniwan kami," Junel Insigne said.

[Translation: I hope that whoever bumped into us, the captain should be held liable. That's what I'm asking from the beloved President. I feel so bad because we were left at sea.]

The government distributed 11 fiberglass fishing boats — one boat to be shared by two fishermen — and groceries, and gave financial aid, including a ₱25,000 loan to the survivors.

Accident or intentional?

Insigne, who was always firm during media interviews that their boat was intentionally rammed by the Chinese, seemed in a daze during the media briefing that was held after the fishermen's meeting with government officials. Seated beside Piñol, he is now saying he is unsure if they were intentionally hit. He said what he is certain of is that they were deserted while they were in clear distress.

Naguguluhan po ako eh. Parang binangga, parang sinadya, parang hindi rin... Ang sinadya po talaga nila (Chinese vessel) ay yung pag-iwan sa amin," he said.

[Translation: I'm confused. It likely collided, it somehow was intentional but also wasn't. But what they did on purpose is to leave us adrift.]

Related: Regional police chief admits lapse in deploying personnel in full gear to boat captain's home

The boat cook, the only crew awake when the Chinese vessel was moving closer to F/B GEM-VER, said it is possible the Chinese crew did not see them because there were only two lights on in their boat.

The argument if the incident was intentional or accidental should be discussed in an impartial marine inquiry, Piñol said. But what's clear to him is that the Chinese crew violated human rights and their obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to rescue those in distress at sea.

"Regardless of whether it was accidental or intentional, there is no justification to the act of the Chinese vessel to abandon the Filipino fishermen who were already in distress. Under international maritime laws, that is illegal. Under human laws, that is immoral,” he said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Chinese crew should apologize and give financial compensation to the aggrieved fishermen.

"It would be appropriate to the demand from the ship captain to apologize and restitution for the damage if proven intentional," he said on Wednesday.

Piñol said he will submit a report based on their dialogue to President Duterte. The President has called the incident a “little maritime accident.”