In jail barracks on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa, the sleepy capital of the Philippine island province Palawan, a Chinese boat crew awaits their pretrial hearing on Tuesday at a court which they say they do not recognise.
The nine fishermen from Hainan province face up to 20 years in a Philippine jail for illegally poaching and taking a record number of endangered turtles off the Philippine coast.
The fishermen say they were in Chinese waters and that Philippine maritime police had no right to arrest them. Philippine police officers say the Qiongqionghai 09063’s crew used the territorial dispute between Beijing and Manila over the resource-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as a ploy to avoid prosecution.
“Our arrest is unlawful, because we were in Chinese waters,” said Chen Qiyuan, the 38-year old captain of the fishing vessel, as he sat idly on a bench in the Palawan Provincial Jail.
“We do not recognise these proceedings.”
Chen and his crew have refused to provide fingerprints, or sign court or jail documents seen by the Post. They pleaded not guilty during the arraignment in May.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it has raised the cause of the fishermen with the Philippine government. "The Chinese side demands the immediate, unconditional release of the Chinese fishing vessel and the Chinese fishermen, and a guarantee that such incidents do not occur again," the ministry's spokesperson's office said in an e-mailed reply to written questions.
For now, Chen's crew is separated from the more than 1,100 Filipino inmates in the Palawan jail compound to avoid ethnic conflict, said a jail warden.
“We get up around 6am and then chat and wait for evening to come,” said Chen. They were served two meals per day and provided additional food from the local Chinese community, he said.
The crew of a Vietnamese vessel of wildlife poachers is also detained separately from the local inmates. “We don’t want them to fight over the territorial dispute,” said the warden, who declined to be named, because he was not authorised to discuss the matter.
Chen said he had been a fisherman since he was 16 years old and came to the Spratlys four times a year to catch turtles. “I have always been doing this work, like my father, like all my ancestors,” he said. He left his home port Tanmen, Qionghai, in Hainan on April 25 for the disputed archipelago.
Chen’s crew of 11, which includes his father Chen Zehao, 64, was arrested on the morning of May 6 by a unit of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group at the Half Moon Shoal, some 55 nautical miles off the Palawan coast, according to court documents seen by the Post.
“Usually, they say they were drifted too close to the coast by a storm,” said a police officer with the apprehending unit. “This time, there was no storm. They couldn’t use it as an excuse.”
Police counted 120 live, 234 dead and an unspecified number of chopped up endangered sea turtles on his boat at the time. After a review of the chopped up remains, the total number of sea turtles added up to 555, said one police officer, who was not authorised to speak on the record, citing the sensitivity of the territorial dispute.
Two underage crew members have since been released for repatriation. The nine others are at the Palawan Provincial Jail awaiting trial on Tuesday. Charged under the Philippine Fisheries Code, they face up to 20 years in prison.
Chen’s catch marks a record in Palawan, said Adelina Benavente-Villena, chief of staff of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, who has been working in wildlife protection on the island province for over three decades. “It is frustrating,” she said. “What they are collecting are threatened species. If we are not successful in controlling this flow of natural resources, then one day we [will] wake up and ask ‘What have we done?’.”
Benavente-Villena’s office provides legal advice to police and prosecutors on how to deal with cases of taking of endangered wildlife. Whereas in the past fishermen and traders had been charged with “malicious mischief”, a vague crime punishable with short jail sentences, and illegal entry, in recent years more poachers have been charged under the fisheries code, with punishments of lengthy jail sentences and fines of up to US$100,000 per vessel, she said.
But enforcement of such sentences has so far been lenient. Foreign poachers typically spent two to three years in Philippine jail, she said. “I haven’t heard of anyone paying the US$100,000 fine yet.”
Benavente-Villena said Chen’s case marked the first time foreign poachers were caught along with local ones, indicating trade connections between the two groups. Police arrested five Philippine poachers on a separate vessel on the same patrol. They found cash in five currencies, including Hong Kong dollars and Philippine pesos on the Chinese vessel, according to the court documents. Chen said he was a fisherman and declined to comment on the trading allegations.
The trade in turtles can be extremely profitable to local fishermen. Depending on size, they can sell a turtle for up to 35,000 Philippine pesos (HK$6,181) to foreign traders they meet at sea, according to two police officers.
Local law enforcement lacks the capacity to tackle wildlife poaching said one law enforcement officer with the unit that made the arrest.
“We cannot gauge any changes in poaching, because we have no way of telling,” he said. His maritime police unit patrols the province’s 1,700 islands and almost 2,000 kilometres of coastline with only six boats. On average, each boat leaves for patrols only twice a week. “Our maritime interdiction is based on tip-offs,” he said. “The most difficult part of our work is dealing with local illegal poachers [selling to foreign vessels]. [The profits are] very tempting.”