Fishermen on the frontline of dispute

Updated: 2014-06-03 08:01

By Peng Yining (China Daily)

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Fishermen on the frontline of dispute

Fishermen unload their catch at the dock. [Photo by Huang Yiming] 

However, the recent tensions have resulted in most of the boats staying in port. At 7 am on a Saturday only one boat put out to sea, returning a short while later carrying just a few baskets of fish.

The other fishermen were busy hauling gear from their boats and hosing down their vessels, their thick rubber-soled boots squeaking on the wet floor.

Most of the boats are wooden and badly in need of a new coat of paint. The prayer banners and national flags, faded after weeks in the harsh tropical sun, fluttered together in the morning breeze.

Huang Kexiong, a 41-year-old captain of a fishing boat, had just returned from a voyage around the Nansha Islands. Despite the length of the trip - 50 days - Huang caught few fish.

"I know some of the people who were detained, including Mai's husband. We worked together near Half Moon Shoal. We are like brothers," he said.

 A lifeline for those in need

Tanmen's fishermen work closely with the Chinese border guards, who patrol both land and sea.

"If we're disturbed by foreign vessels or we need assistance on the open water, we call the police for help. We call about other things too, of course, such as weather forecasts."

Fu Shibao, an officer at Tanmen's border guard station, has been a lifeline between the fishermen and the border guards for 14 years. He estimated that he's taken more than 2,000 calls - habitually answering each one with a laconic, "Hi, how's it all going?" - and said he knows every boat and every fisherman in town.

"The most frequently asked questions are about the weather," he said. "It's my responsibility to guide the fishermen, and help them to avoid bad conditions."

In 2012, Fu answered a call from Chinese fishermen who had encountered a foreign patrol boat near Huangyan Island. Two coast guard vessels were quickly dispatched and prevented the boat from being impounded.

"All the fishermen regard Fu as a brother. We feel much safer knowing that he's waiting for our calls," said Ding Zhile, head of the local Fisheries Association.

Last year, Fu was awarded a medal for his outstanding work. Modestly, he said he's just one of thousands of dedicated officers.

Wang Yanzhong, Fu's supervisor, said: "The fishermen are vulnerable out on the deep sea, facing bad weather and foreign vessels. It's our duty to protect them."

Peng Yining

Huang avidly follows the news coverage of events in the South China Sea. He's hoping to see relations improve because the turbulent situation means it's proving difficult to find a crew for his 30-meter-long vessel.

"Fishing is very dangerous work and this conflict is making things even worse," he said.

Huang, who has been a fisherman since he was 17, said the rough waters around the Nansha Islands are hard to get to - the voyage takes three days - and tough to fish.

In 1995, Huang was fishing with his uncle when their boat sank during a storm. Huang spent 40 hours trembling in the freezing water, clinging tightly to a piece of wreckage. He and 11 other fishermen survived, but two other members of the crew weren't so lucky.

"The ocean is vast and humans are small. Out on the deep sea, my boat is like a small leaf," he said, adding that his hard work is prompted by the need to provide for his children, an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.

"I fully support their desire to go to school and get a good education. That way they won't have to become a fisherman like me," he said. "Fishing has become so much harder because of the dispute, so I'm thinking of changing and moving into another business."


That desire for change isn't limited to the fishermen. Tanmen is also trying to transform its industrial base. The local government's website carries a report detailing moves to promote tourism and attract large numbers of visitors to enjoy the ocean views and local seafood. According to the report, the number of stores in the town has risen to 456 from 238 in the past 12 months.

Ornaments and jewelry made from seashells are a local specialty, and the rising number of visitors has seen the number of stores mushroom to 310 from 35 in 2013.

Despite all the changes, the political influence is still apparent. New apartment blocks at a local real estate project are named after islands, including Diaoyu and Huangyan. The prices of necklaces made from shells collected off Huangyan Island are 10 to 20 percent higher than for those made with shells from other areas, and some local restaurants sell fish caught near the island at a higher price than usual, calling it "patriotic food".

"I was surprised that the Filipinos detained our boat and fishermen. I have been fishing since I was 19 and have encountered foreign fishing boats and customs patrols many times, but I've rarely seen any real conflict," said He Zijun, a 49-year-old fishing boat captain. "It seems that frictions between the two countries have increased."

Following the impounding of the Qiong Qionghai 09063, He stopped fishing and now uses his boat to carry cargo and ferry passengers around the coast.

Mai Miao is still waiting for her husband and father-in-law to come home. She said her two sons, aged 12 and 16, are doing well in school, but if they fail to gain a place at university, they'll have no option but to become fishermen like their father and grandfather.

"We don't know any other way of making a living. When my husband comes back, we will still fish around the Nansha Islands," she said. "We have every right to do that - after all, these are our waters, aren't they?"

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