By JOAN GARCIA
Agoo, LA UNION — Manong George has been a fisherman all his life. Fishing is not just his primary source of income but also his family’s source of food. Despite the natural dangers of fishing, fisherfolks also have to contend with the restrictions being imposed by commercial vessels.
Manong George said, “Life on the seashore is hard for us. When trawls and boli-boli would fish in our area, it takes about 5 days before we can have our usual catch again.”
It is because of the trawls and boli-boli that fishermen are forced to fish outside the municipal waters (15 kilometers from shoreline as indicated by Republic Act 8550 or the Fisheries Modernization Act), reaching the Pangasinan waters. There are Bantay Dagat volunteers guarding the supposed boundary and most of the time when fishermen are caught, they are fired at and jailed for days. Yet, despite the dangers, the fishermen take the risks, otherwise their families will go hungry.
Almost nine months ago, Manong George and 15 of his companions almost lost their lives in an encounter with Bantay Dagat volunteers.
Manong George and his companions set out early to sea in four motor bancas. With their meals wrapped in plastic bags, they braved the cold breeze hoping for a big catch. It had been days since they last went to sea and they were worried. The Christmas break would soon be over which meant their kids would have to go to school again; they still did not have money for their children’s school allowance.
Upon reaching the waters of Alaminos, Pangasinan, they cast their fishing nets eagerly. Yet, halfway through their fishing, they noticed a motor banca approaching. The fishermen panicked, they knew it was the Bantay Dagat and that they were the target. Eight of their companions sped away in two motor bancas while Manong George and seven others were left, immobilized by fear. Aside from fear, each was thinking of home and their kids. They would not only have nothing for their kids’ allowance, they might also die right there.
When the Bantay Dagat arrived, the leader aimed his .45 caliber handgun at them as he commanded his men to take out the engine’s needle and confiscated their catch and fish nets. Certain that they would not be able to use the banca to escape, the Bantay Dagat left and chased their other companions.
Expert with their motor bancas, Manong George and his companions were able to escape while those who tried to escape were caught and jailed for two days in Alaminos, Pangasinan.
Until now, the eight fishermen are still attending court hearings. Their motor bancas and fishnets were never returned. According to Manong George, these are personally used now by their Bantay Dagat captors.
“Whenever we set to sea, we are uncertain if we will catch anything. Also we are unsure if we will be able to go back to our families or they will just hear news that we have been jailed or shot,” said Manong George.
Manong Tasyo, the provincial chairperson of Timek-La Union mentioned local ordinances that further aggravate the situation of small fisherfolk such as compulsory banca registration, color coding and taxation. He also took note that even the RA 8550 which claims to improve lives of fisherfolk has only opened the seas to large commercial fishing vessels and imposed fishing restrictions that has only made things worse and more miserable for small fishermen.
For Manong Tasyo and Manong George, life goes on even with the obvious threats to their livelihood and lives. However, they are not being passive about their plight. With less than a year to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s term, the fisherfolks are still pursuing the call that they have been pushing for.
“If this will continue, we will surely die of hunger. The President does not pity us. She has not done anything good for us that is why she should be kicked out,” said Manong Tasyo.