MASINLOC, Zambales—Sitio Matalvis is a coastal community that is densely packed with fishermen and their families who flourished or failed according to the bounty of the sea.

Even when a fire broke out here in February 2012 and wiped out the homes of more than 200 families, the hardy fisherfolk bounced back soon after—rebuilding their lives in houses built on stilts along the muddy shoreline.

Deep-sea fishermen fix fishing nets at the Matalvis fishing community.

But the Matalvis fishermen were not ready for what was to come barely two months after the fire. This was when the Philippines figured in a tense diplomatic standoff with China over Scarborough Shoal, a resource-rich lagoon 240 nautical miles west of Zambales.

For the locals, Scarborough was Bajo de Masinloc, their traditional fishing ground—a lucrative source of high-value reef fishes, as well as refuge during harsh weather. But when Chinese militia boats erected a barrier at the entrance of the shoal by July of 2012 and took effective control of the lagoon, the people of Matalvis became direct casualties of the territorial conflict: the bonanza from the sea virtually dried out.

Best times past

FISHING has traditionally been a major occupation of residents in Masinloc, a municipality in Zambales, which lays claim to the disputed Scarborough Shoal. According to the town’s agriculture office, about 4,000 of the town’s roughly 48,000 residents are involved in the fishing industry.

Accordingly, from 500 to 800 fishing boats are registered in the municipality each year, the fluctuation in numbers depending on whether the owners consider fishing as an occupation worth their while, or not. Matalvis, which is predominantly a Visayan community, is the center of the town’s fishing business.

The virtual occupation by the Chinese of Bajo de Masinloc, therefore, came as a nightmare to the fishermen of Matalvis who never had it so good with bumper fish harvests at the shoal.

Roberto Cayuda, a 54-year-old crew of a deep-sea fishing boat, recalled that business was so good at the time that there were about 24 deep-sea fishing vessels in Matalvis that ventured out into the Scarborough area.

This was primarily the reason Cayuda, a native of Davao, settled here some 30 years ago, or why Rico Heroyla, a 42-year-old Cebuano, has made Matalvis his home in the last 24 years.

“There were about 200 of us from Masinloc who used to fish near Scarborough, but there were also those from [the Zambales towns of] Santa Cruz, Palauig and Subic, as well as from Pangasinan,” Heroyla recalled.

“Before, you could find as many as 50 local boats fishing in Scarborough at any one time,” he added. The deep-sea fishers usually fished for tuna, round scad (galunggong) and other open-sea species and the catch was shared among the boat owners, boat captains and crew, and the kapitalista who fund the fishing trips.

A fisherman relaxes by his boat after bringing his catch to the public market in Masinloc, Zambales.

As an ordinary boat crew, Heroyla said he was earning from P30,000 to P50,000 a month from four-day fishing trips—enough money to go around for his growing family with three children.

Cayuda added that most of the deep-sea fishers here then “could even afford to buy some luxury items like household appliances.”

Most of the fishers said that before the standoff, one week’s work at sea would earn them enough money to last a month—or until they go on the next fishing trip.

Bajo blockade

BECAUSE access to Bajo de Masinloc lagoon meant bigger catch and bigger income among local fishermen, some locals tried to venture into the shoal after the Chinese takeover. But most of them returned with sad stories to tell.

Cayuda said that in 2016, he and fellow crewmen were shooed away by a Chinese naval ship. “They said, ‘Filipino fishermen move out,’” Cayuda remembered. “The ship had big guns—so we left.”

Heroyla, meanwhile, said they encountered Chinese boats while fishing at their own payao (a fish-aggregating device) near the Scarborough Shoal. “One day we were awakened by blasts from a ship horn, and when we looked, we saw cannons pointed our way.”

Fiberglass boats produced by the Masinloc LGU line the front yard of the town’s fish landing and marketing facility.

Heroyla said they were ordered to go back 10 miles away. “There were usually five ships guarding the shoal—three whites [Chinese Coast Guard vessels] and two grays [naval ships]. The guns scared us, and we did not go back there,” Heroyla said.

Another Matalvis fisherman said their boat was almost sunk at Bajo de Masinloc about four years ago. “The lead boats that the Chinese first encountered were bombarded with water cannon. We managed to leave the area fast, but some of the boats in our group were sunk,” he said.

“After one year, we tried to go back, but at the mouth of the lagoon there was already a Chinese Coast Guard ship blocking the entrance,” he added.

Renaldo Roma, 35, another Davao native who now lives in Matalvis, said they tried fishing at the Bajo in 2017 and were also told by the Chinese to leave. “We were about to cast our nets then, when they told us to go away. We left the area and nothing untoward happened. But we did not go back to Scarborough since then.”

Bleak prospects

THE Bajo the Masinloc blockade, which locals consider their best fishing ground, had taken its toll on local deep-sea fishers.

Roma, for one, said he earned only P30,000 last year compared to an average of from P40,000 to P50,000 a year. In 2019, a lucky year, he said, his income reached P130,000—his biggest annual proceeds so far.

Roma said the catch has been poor recently, especially when fishing was confined to municipal waters during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Sometimes we go out for three days and two nights and we catch only around 17 kilos. That’s a big loss.”

He added that there were times when they were able to sell their catch at only P110 per kilo. “Our starting investment is P500, which is for diesel fuel, ice and bait. I split the net with the boat owner, so I’m left with around P100 for the day’s work. And it’s not even every day that we get to catch fish,” Roma said.

Roberto Amabad, 52, who also works in a deep-sea fishing vessel from Matalvis, said they still fish in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal when the weather is good, but stay a good 14 miles from the lagoon and its Chinese guards.

Amabad said nothing compared with fishing inside the lagoon. “Nowadays, we sometimes catch a lot of fish, other times just a little. But when we could still access Scarborough, that’s when we caught so much fish! If there’s a strong Northerly, we would anchor inside the lagoon and we could catch up to 100 tons. Now, we average around 20 tons, sometimes less.”

Other local fishers said that the Bajo de Masinloc blockade was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which initially restricted their movement and also brought down demand and fish prices. Some also reported dwindling fish catch that they attributed to overfishing, deteriorating condition of municipal waters, and changing weather patterns that made their work environment unpredictable and even risky.

Bucking the odds

WITH all the odds stacked against them, some Matalvis fishermen have been trying out other jobs to make extra money to supplement their income from fishing.

Rolando Fuentes, 37, drives a tricycle on spare time, while Roma, who has three children to send to school, gets additional income clearing fields or harvesting crops.

But most cannot leave what they loved most: being at sea and catching fish. “I’ve tried working in a shipyard as a scaffold worker, but I didn’t like it. So, I went back to fishing,” said Florencio Ecal, who fishes with a local outfit along the Zambales coast.

“We fish at the Silangin area [in San Antonio, Zambales] about one-half hour away, with two or three fishermen on a boat. We go out at least three times a week, but for one-day trips only and usually catch the small fish varieties—dilis, tamban, terong,” Ecal said.

“During lucky days, we can catch around 40 banyera of fish and at the going price of P500 per banyera, we earn around P20,000. But on unlucky days, we go home with a small catch that is not enough to pay for the P500 we spend for gasoline and batteries,” he added.

Meanwhile, those who remained true to their calling of venturing far out into open waters decidedly keep their distance from their beloved Bajo de Masinloc.

Abamad, Cadayuna and Roma, who still join deep-sea fishing crews, said they still venture out some 15 miles away from the shoal, but have now tried fishing inside Zambales waters.

Boats and boneless bangus

AS fishing is considered one of the major occupations in the community and the de facto takeover by the Chinese of Bajo de Masinloc remains the biggest cause of income loss to local fishermen, the local government unit of Masinloc has initiated what was described by local officials as an integrated approach for the development of the local fishing industry, with the goal of making the lives of local fisherfolk better.

Mayor Arsenia Lim, in her recent State of the Municipality Address, said the municipality has provided 12 units of 20-footer fiberglass fishing boat and two units of “mother boat” to local fishermen. Meanwhile, the local government also improved the town’s fishport and built a new fish landing center and warehouse.

“Through the municipal livelihood development program, we have also granted the Masinloc Fisherfolk Cooperative (Mafisco) with a P17-million loan,” Lim said.

Jerry Escape, who is Municipal Agriculture Technologist in charge of fisheries, said the 20-footer fiberglass boats would enable local fishers to venture farther out into the sea, and thus prevent them from depleting fish stocks in Masinloc Bay.

He added that the P17-million soft loan at 1 percent interest was used by Mafisco to procure two commercial-size fishing boats and light boats. Personnel at the Municipal Cooperative Development Office (MCDO) confirmed that the fishermen’s cooperative had so far paid back P4 million of the P17 million loaned out by the local government unit (LGU).

Municipal Agriculture Officer Ferdinand Echon also said the Masinloc municipal government under Mayor Lim had organized a fisherfolk cooperative for a food processing project to produce bottled sardines under the brand name “Masinloc Bay Sardines.”

It is also building cooperatives among fishpond and fish cage owners and workers to train them on smoked fish processing and production of boneless bangus, he added.

The LGU initiatives, perhaps not coincidentally, matched the needs of the fishermen who lost much income from the Chinese stranglehold of Bajo de Masinloc. In recent interviews with this writer, the Matalvis fisherfolk said they wanted to receive from the government alternative livelihood projects that they can manage; their own boats, so that they can fish more and earn better; skills training on other means of livelihood; and emergency financial assistance in times when fishing was not tenable.

Images courtesy of Henry Empeño and Google Earth

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