HomeFeaturesFilipino seafarers, fishermen face rough sailing amid pandemic

Filipino seafarers, fishermen face rough sailing amid pandemic

On July 12, the Catholic Church marks “Sea Sunday” to shine the spotlight on the condition of those who work on the world’s oceans, including seafarers and fishermen.

In his message, Pope Francis assured seafarers that they are “not alone and they are not forgotten” as he prayed for seafarers, fishermen, and those who work “to free the sea from pollution.”

“I pray for them and their families,” he said.

In the Philippines, Mang Roque, 58, has been working as a fisherman for about three decades. He was contented with his life at sea. He already knew the highs and lows of the ocean.

But on June 18, 2019, something happened that made him feel “very vulnerable.” His fishing boat was hit by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.

The boat was destroyed and all 22 fishermen were left floating in the middle of the ocean until they were rescued by a passing Vietnamese boat.

Mang Roque said he and his fellow fishermen used to sail from the coast of Zambales in the northern Philippines for 17 hours to Scarborough Shoal, part of a group of islands in the South China Sea.

Fishermen haul their catch off the coast of Lingayen, Pangasinan province. Photo by Jojo Riñoza
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In recent years, however, the Filipinos have been complaining that they were being harassed by Chinese boats and men who would point guns at them.

“Before, we each earn about US$30 a day, but now, we just get about US$6,” he told LiCAS.news. They have to settle on the shallower areas of the sea.

But the waters near the coast have been polluted with nickel wastes from mining sites in Zambales.

“We just get what we can get from the municipal fishing grounds,” said Mang Roque.

Then the coronavirus pandemic came. The fisherfolk lost whatever little they were earning. Instead of selling their catch, they trade it for rice.

“Where else should we go? The government cannot defend us,” he said.

A fisherman shows his catch during days of fishing off the coast of the northern Philippines. (Photo by Jojo Rinoza)

Mang Roque asked LiCAS.news not to reveal his real name “because fishermen are not allowed to speak up.”

He said he had spoken up several times in the past and he received death threats. “The government sees us as the enemy,” he said.

On June 28, another fishing boat, MV Vienna Wood, capsized after being hit by a Hong Kong-flagged vessel. At least 14 Filipino fishermen remain missing.

Rights groups criticized President Rodrigo Duterte’s silence, describing it as “a blatant attempt to downplay the incident,” thus encouraging foreign vessels “to belittle the safety of our fishermen.”

“I hope the President will find a way to defend the rights of our fishermen against the abusive foreigners,” said Mang Roque.

The crew of F/B Ruvina 3 prepare their fishing boat for another shipping expedition to Scarborough Shoal. (Photo by Jojo Rinoza)

During this year’s observance of Sea Sunday, Pope Francis made special mention “of those who live in unworthy work situations at sea.”

A third of all seafarers and fishermen are estimated to be Catholic, with a large proportion coming from Catholic areas of India and the Philippines.

They number about 1.2 million, provide over 110 tons of seafood for consumption, and are responsible for 90 percent of global trade.

In his message, Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, detailed the hardships seafarers face daily.

He said they are “forced to live for several months in the confined space of a vessel, away from their families and loved ones, missing the most important and meaningful events in their families and failing to be present during times of trials and difficulties such as sickness and death.”

A fisherman’s son with his dog watches as his father prepares to go to sea. (Photo by Jojo Rinoza)

Cardinal Turkson said mechanization has reduced turnaround time in ports to a minimum, leaving crew members with “inadequate personal time to rest and relax.”

At the same time, chaplains and ship visitors, he said, are often denied access to vessels in port, and are unable to provide them with material and spiritual support.

Cardinal Turkson warned about the dangers of violence and piracy at sea, which, though improving in recent years, requires constant vigilance.

He also said crews and vessels are sometimes abandoned in foreign ports far from home.

“Once abandoned the seafarers are left by themselves to struggle for food, salaries, immigration status and many more issues unless they are assisted by a welfare organization,” said the cardinal.

Meanwhile, he assured Vatican support for efforts made by the International Maritime Organization “to prevent and significantly reduce marine plastic pollution from the shipping sector and in curbing greenhouse gas emissions from ships.”

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