The Philippine fishing industry is facing imminent collapse due to large numbers of Chinese fishing vessels constantly entering the country’s rich fishing grounds and harvesting the catch that normally would have gone to local fishermen and companies.

Although fishing vessels from other nations have been caught in Philippine waters – last week a Vietnamese boat was apprehended by local authorities – it is the large Chinese ships that have caused local fishermen to experience a sharp decline in their daily catch that has scientists worried.

In a statement released to local media late last week, a group of scientists who call themselves AGHAM, or Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, said the territorial disputes over the West Philippine Sea, which China says is part of the South China Sea, could lead to the collapse of the country’s fishing industry.

AGHAM said, “China’s illegal encroachment in the West Philippine Sea is counterproductive to national and global efforts in curbing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.”

The group said global fisheries experts have “already warned of possible fisheries collapse if territorial disputes continue.”

Over the years, more and more Chinese ships have been encroaching in an ever-widening swath of Philippine waters. The fishing is done to help feed a population of more than one billion, whose standard of living has risen to the point that China is now the world’s second largest economy after the US.

There is growing suspicion, however, that not all the reported Chinese vessels are engaged in fishing but some are actually militia ships.

Last month, 220 Chinese ships were spotted in Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippine Coast Guard. As of last week, there were still 44 Chinese vessels moored in the reef.

Other Chinese ships have been spotted in other reefs within the country’s exclusive economic zone. In all, 258 Chinese ships have been spotted in various reefs in Philippine waters as of end-March.

According to AGHAM, Chinese activities in the disputed area caused damage to at least 16,000 hectares of reefs, costing an estimated PHP33.1 billion (about US$689 million) per annum.

Filipino scientists have not been able to conduct as much research as they wanted due to harassment by the Chinese ships, some of which are suspected to be military in nature.

Said AGHAM: “China’s activities will also lead to loss in livelihood of about 627,000 fisherfolk, as their continuing aggression poses threats to the safety of fisherfolk. Filipino maritime scientists conducting studies in the West Philippine Sea may also be subjected to harassment, thereby impeding scientific work vital to fisheries management.”

The Filipino scientists also said that China’s rampant demonstration of their dominance in the West Philippine Sea was sending “a strong message that they will not allow our country to develop our own natural resources within our territorial rights.”

This, they said, is a violation of the country’s integrity of its national territory.

In the last decade prior to the Chinese incursions on Philippine territory, the country was among the major fish-producing countries in the world, producing 3.1 million tons of fish and other aquatic seafood. The Philippines was also the third largest producer of farmed seaweed at 1.8 million tons, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Besides its incursions into Philippine waters, the Chinese have also been erecting suspected military bases and outposts in the islets within the reefs.

The Chinese embassy denied that the virtual armada of fishing vessels had any intention other than to seek shelter in the reef last month, ostensibly due to inclement weather that posed serious danger to them.

China, however, insisted that the reef was actually part of their territory.