By Zaldy De Layola and Jose Cielito Reganit

(PNA file photo)

MANILA – The House of Representatives on Friday assured help for thousands of Zambales fishers in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) and other disputed areas inside Philippine waters.

During a hearing of the Committee on National Defense and Security and the Special Committee on the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Pampanga 3rd District Rep. Aurelio Gonzales Jr. promised fisherfolk that their concerns will reach President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and other officials.

Sa utos po ni Speaker, nandito po kami kahit kami ay nasa-recess ngayon para pakinggan kayo. Huwag po kayong mag-alala, makakarating po kay Speaker ang mga hinaing at concern ninyo (Under the directive of the Speaker [Ferdinand Martin Romualdez], we are here despite being in recess to hear you. Don’t worry, your grievance will reach the Speaker),” Gonzales said.

Fisherfolk aired their experiences when they were water cannoned by the Chinese Coast Guard and their difficulties at Bajo de Masinloc.

They expressed concerns for their safety, especially with China’s threat of arresting “trespassers” starting in June.

Iloilo 5th District Rep. Raul Tupas, committee vice chair, said the problems of Zambales fisherfolk “may require a multi-sectoral or inter-agency approach.”

“Complex po ang isyu na ito, complex po ang problemang ito. Kaya kailangan po natin ng tulong ng maraming ahensya ng gobyerno (The issues and problems here are complex. That’s why we need the help of various government agencies,” Tupas said. “Hopefully po we will be able to overcome these obstacles and convert them into stepping stones.”

Leyte 4th District Rep. Richard Gomez also encouraged the government to still pursue bilateral talks with China to prevent the the possibility of Filipino fishers being detained.

“We will have to encourage the continued bilateral talks, lalo na may ganitong pananakot na mangyayari (especially in the presence of harassment) within the next few weeks,” Gomez said.

Zambales 1st District Rep. Jay Khonghun said the filing of diplomatic protests must also continue.

Kailangan natin ipagtanggol ang ating soberanya at ating teritoryo. Nakita naman natin yung deklarasyon ng ating Presidente na hindi siya papayag na any inch ng ating teritoryo ay mapunta sa mga banyaga. So wala tayong isusuko na kahit anong teritoryo sa Tsina (We need to defend our sovereignty and territory. Our President has declared that he will not cede even an inch of our territory to foreign countries. So, we will not surrender any of our territory to China),” Khonghun said.

Lawmakers likewise suggested that assistance from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) must meet fisherfolk’s needs. 

“We will make sure in the next budget hearing that BFAR will extend the kind of assistance fisherfolk need. They have the funds for it,” Khonghun said.

Laguna 1st District Rep. Dan Fernandez suggested a program similar to the public utility vehicle modernization.

“You have to consolidate and form cooperatives to obtain low-interest loans from Land Bank of the Philippines and even subsidies from the national government like jeepney drivers, so you can have modern fishing boats,” he said.

Zambales Governor Hermogenes Ebdane informed lawmakers that the provincial government had already started a similar undertaking for fisherfolk. 

“We are making available PHP5 million for every group of fishermen without interest, but they will have to repay it,” Ebdane said, adding they would welcome funding from the national government.

Ebdane said they would welcome funding from the national government.

Camiguin Rep. Jurdin Jesus Romualdo suggested that fisherfolk families should have other means of livelihood other than fishing.

“You cannot depend on fishing alone, especially during the rainy season, when it is hard to go out to sea,” he said. (PNA)