Conservation news

Duterte orders navy to fire on foreign poachers in Philippine waters

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has called on the navy to shoot at foreign ships suspected of extracting natural resources from his country’s exclusive maritime territory.

Duterte made the statement Feb. 9 at a news conference where he addressed the Southeast Asian nation’s rights to Benham Rise, an undersea region off the country’s northeastern coast. The area is thought to hold oil and gas deposits as well as rich fishing sites.

Philippine authorities recently flagged concerns about intrusions when a Chinese ship was monitored crisscrossing the waters early last year, drawing public attention to the territory.

All foreign scientific groups, including from China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, have concluded their research work in the waters, and Duterte wants future research missions to be carried out by Philippine nationals.

“If you get something there from the economic zone, I will order the navy to fire,” Duterte said as reported by the Associated Press.

He was referring to the country’s 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zone, where coastal states are granted special rights to exploit natural resources under a 1982 UN treaty. Foreign ships are allowed to sail through those waters.

The president did not elaborate on the protocol for such action, such as whether suspect boats would be fired on with crew members on board.

Facing the Pacific Ocean, the underwater plateau stretches about 240,000 square kilometers (about 92,700 square miles) and a large part of it is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The remainder was granted by the United Nations as part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf. In an attempt to strengthen its claim on the region, Duterte last year officially renamed the plateau Philippine Rise.

“I’m putting notice to the world that the Philippine Rise, which we call Benham Rise, is ours … and the economic zone is ours,” Duterte said.

“I said and ordered the Philippine Navy and Air Force to do regular patrols,” he added as quoted by CNN Philippines.

Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti been seizing illegal foreign fishing vessels like this one and blowing them up at sea. Photo courtesy of Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Such drastic measures are not unprecedented in the hotly contested waters of Southeast Asia, where some of the world’s richest marine ecosystems are routinely plundered by poachers and threatened by overfishing. The region is also home to the Pacific Coral Triangle, one of the most important global centers of marine biodiversity.

Duterte’s decision was warmly praised by Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, who has led her own campaign of seizing and blowing up illegal foreign fishing vessels caught poaching in Indonesia’s waters.

“It’s good, they understand that theft isn’t just about fish,” Susi told reporters in Jakarta, as quoted by local media outlet Kompas. “There are other motives, other crimes, and they’re not playing around.”

She added that transnational organized crime such as illegal fishing was carried out “in many countries by several nations, creating a massive integrated [fisheries] business.”

Under Susi’s command — and with the blessing of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the firepower of the navy — Indonesia in 2014 began a campaign of vacating and blowing up foreign fishing vessels seized in its waters. The campaign is part of Jokowi’s pledge to revive the country’s maritime sector, which for decades was plagued by illegal, unreported and undocumented (IUU) fishing.

Indonesia has since scuttled more than 320 foreign fishing boats.

Malaysia announced in July 2016 it would also start sinking poaching boats in a way that would encourage the growth of artificial reefs.

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