'No justifiable reason' for Chinese crew to abandon Filipino fishermen – Agriculture chief

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 18) — Pending the probe on a China vessel ramming a Philippine fishing boat, a Cabinet official believes the abandonment of 22 local fishermen in open sea was unacceptable.

"Assuming — for the sake of argument — that it was accident, there is no justifiable reason for them to abandon the fishermen while they were in the water. That is the issue we're raising right now," Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol told CNN Philippines on Tuesday.

He said that based on his meeting with the Filipino cook who was the only crew member awake when the Chinese vessel hit their boat around midnight of June 9, the incident could be an accident. He said Richard Blaza told him there were only two lights turned on in their anchored boat, fishing boat (F/B) GEM-VER, meaning the Chinese crew possibly did not see them. He called Blaza the "only reliable witness."

"This was an isolated incident. This was the first of its kind in the area. It has to be deeply investigated," he said.

Piñol, who is the government's designated chairman to assist the 22 fishermen, added, "It has to be established whether the ramming or allusion, was it intentionally done or was just accidental? From there you could establish malice or innocence. If not intentional, apologies are in order."

Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon said the issue is not whether the ramming was intentional or accidental. He said it is about how Chinese fishermen violated their obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to rescue those in distress at sea.

"Let us not muddle the issue. Whether the ramming was intentional or accidental, what is in issue, and what is clear and admitted, is that the Chinese boat captain abandoned the Philippine fishermen in distress at sea. This is the issue that should be addressed and the basis of China's liability under international law and the UNCLOS," he said in a statement.

Amid the boat ramming, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. on Monday called for the enforcement of duty to give assistance to persons in distress at sea.

Blaza said the Chinese crew clearly knew they needed to be rescued, but instead turned off their vessel's lights and left the Filipino fishermen in the sea. The 22 fishermen struggled to stay afloat in the cold sea for almost three hours before a Vietnamese fishing boat passed by to rescue them.

Chinese vessel not supposed to be in Recto Bank

Piñol also admitted Chinese vessels weren't even supposed to be in Recto Bank, but he said it is a different issue altogether.

"I guess they were fishing in the area. They're not supposed to be there, but that's another issue," he said.

Recto Bank, internationally known as Reed Bank, is just 85 nautical miles away from Palawan, well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This is the latest reported incident of harassment of Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea that the lies within the country's EEZ.