Puerto Princesa (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Under the protective watch of warships, Chinese fishing vessels anchored off the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the disputed Spratly archipelago in the West Philippine Sea operated at will yesterday, catching fish but mainly collecting corals in large quantities.
The fishing boats were only 9 kilometres from Pag-asa, that municipal employees on the island could clearly see them using winches and booms to haul corals from the seabed to wooden "sampans" (junks), said Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon of Kalayaan, which governs Pag-asa and four other islets in the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines.
"Our people, the civilian staff of the municipality of Kalayaan, wanted to stop them yesterday," Bito-onon said. "I had to ask them to stand down and just monitor the developments for now."
The mayor said his staff observed the Chinese fishermen rigging steel cables to large coral heads to pull them up using winches. The rocks were then hauled into larger ships using booms.
Bito-onon, who has been in Puerto Princesa since early this week, said he kept in touch with the Kalayaan municipal personnel through radio.
Philippine troops stationed on the island were reportedly also under orders to stand down while Manila sorted out the problem with the Chinese through diplomatic channels, Bito-onon said.
The Western Command (Wescom) declined to issue an official status update.
"We are closely watching the developments and will respond appropriately and constructively in due time," said the Wescom spokesperson, Lt. Col. Neil Estrella.
More than 20 boats
Reports from sources at the Department of National Defence indicated that there were more than 20 Chinese fishing boats around Pag-asa Island.
Surveillance photographs obtained by the Inquirer showed an unusual number of fishing vessels inside the protected lagoons of Mischief and Subi reefs, both occupied by the Chinese.
At least 30 other Chinese fishing boats were reported to be at Subi Reef, just south of Pag-asa.
The Philippines refers to Subi Reef as Zamora Reef. The Chinese call it Zhubi Island, and the Vietnamese call it Su Bi Dao.
"The fishing fleet, we believe, came from the Paracels and part of the government-sanctioned fishing expedition backed by several frigates and armed China fisheries department vessels," Peter Fajardo, Kalayaan municipality's island administrator, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer via radio Thursday.
Fajardo said at least eight fishing boats could be seen from the island on Thursday.
"We saw eight fishing boats with several sampans escorted by one big vessel coloured white, anchored east of the island, approximately [3 kilometres to 5 kilometres] into the sea," Fajardo said.
Bito-onon said the sampans sailed straight to Hainan on mainland China as soon as they were loaded with corals.
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