The bustling port of Tanmen in Hainan province. [Photo by Huang Yiming]
The fishermen of Tanmen had returned to their home port, leaving their wooden boats riding at anchor in a colorful cluster, floating side by side on the busy waterfront in Hainan province.
Every boat flew the same red triangular flag bearing four Chinese characters in yellow: Yi Fan Feng Shun, or "May smooth sailing accompany your journey". The flags are a tradition among Chinese fishermen, a plea for safe passage during their long, dangerous voyages.
However, the picturesque scene masked a growing sense of unease in this small maritime community of 30,000 residents, spread along an 18-kilometer coastline. Unlike their peers whose boats ply other sections of the Chinese coast, Tanmen’s fishermen face not only the perils of the open sea, but also the danger of an encounter with a foreign patrol boat.
To identify themselves as Chinese citizens, the fishermen hang national flags alongside their traditional prayer banners, hoping the combination of the two will protect them from bad weather and the unrest caused by a recent rise in political tensions between China and the Philippines.
On May 6, the Philippine National Police intercepted a Tanmen-based fishing boat, Qiong Qionghai 09063, in the waters off Half Moon Shoal in the Nansha Islands, and detained all 11 members of the crew. The Philippine authorities claimed the fishermen had violated the country’s anti-poaching laws by catching 500 endangered turtles in its "exclusive economic zone". Two fishermen, neither of whom is yet 18, were quickly released and returned to China, but the other nine have been charged with poaching.
In response, the Chinese authorities said the impounding of the boat violated international maritime law, and asserted that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters, including Half Moon Shoal.
Mai Miao’s husband, Chen Yiquan, aged 38, and his father were on the impounded boat. They are now awaiting trial in the Philippines. "I talked to my husband on the telephone a few days ago. He said he wants to come home. We miss him a lot," she said. "I tried my best not to cry when we spoke, but…"
On May 21, the Philippine authorities released photos of the jailed fishermen. Mai said Chen and his father looked safe and well fed, but that hasn’t lessened her concern. "The whole family depends on them and the boat. What can we do without them and the income they bring in?" asked the 38-year-old mother of two.
Fishermen are the first to sense any rise in tension in the South China Sea, according to Ding Zhile, head of the Tanmen Fisheries Association. "Information spreads faster among fishermen than the traditional news channels," he said. "Especially fishermen from Tanmen, because we operate on the maritime border."
According to Ding, more than 100 Chinese boats have been intercepted in the past decade. After the Qiong Qionghai 09063 was impounded, Ding and several members of the local government visited the detained men’s families.
"Tanmen is only a small fishing town, but it’s very important because its residents work on the maritime frontier," said Ding. "Everything here is political."
President Xi Jinping visited Tanmen in April of last year. A huge photo of him talking to fishermen and shaking their hands now stands in the county’s busiest street, near the port area.
According to the website of the county administration, Tanmen will be developed into the home port for all Chinese boats heading out into the South China Sea.
"Tanmen people have been fishing in the South China Sea, including the area around Huangyan Island, for generations," said Ding. "They are our home waters."
Fishing is the area’s key industry. More than 170 of the boats in Tanmen are larger than 80 metric tons, and the local fishing industry employs more than 10,000 people, according to Ding, who said the county lacks alternative resources and has no industrial base, so the people’s lives depend on the fish, crabs, lobsters and sea cucumbers they catch.
He Zijun, fishing boat captain, checks navigation equipment before a voyage. [Photo by Huang Yiming]
However, the recent tensions have resulted in most of the boats staying in port. At 7 am on a Saturday only one boat put out to sea, returning a short while later carrying just a few baskets of fish.
The other fishermen were busy hauling gear from their boats and hosing down their vessels, their thick rubber-soled boots squeaking on the wet floor.
Most of the boats are wooden and badly in need of a new coat of paint. The prayer banners and national flags, faded after weeks in the harsh tropical sun, fluttered together in the morning breeze.
Fishermen unload their catch at the dock. [Photo by Huang Yiming]
Huang Kexiong, a 41-year-old captain of a fishing boat, had just returned from a voyage around the Nansha Islands. Despite the length of the trip – 50 days – Huang caught few fish.
"I know some of the people who were detained, including Mai’s husband. We worked together near Half Moon Shoal. We are like brothers," he said.
Huang avidly follows the news coverage of events in the South China Sea. He’s hoping to see relations improve because the turbulent situation means it’s proving difficult to find a crew for his 30-meter-long vessel.
"Fishing is very dangerous work and this conflict is making things even worse," he said.
Huang, who has been a fisherman since he was 17, said the rough waters around the Nansha Islands are hard to get to – the voyage takes three days – and tough to fish.
In 1995, Huang was fishing with his uncle when their boat sank during a storm. Huang spent 40 hours trembling in the freezing water, clinging tightly to a piece of wreckage. He and 11 other fishermen survived, but two other members of the crew weren’t so lucky.
"The ocean is vast and humans are small. Out on the deep sea, my boat is like a small leaf," he said, adding that his hard work is prompted by the need to provide for his children, an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.
"I fully support their desire to go to school and get a good education. That way they won’t have to become a fisherman like me," he said. "Fishing has become so much harder because of the dispute, so I’m thinking of changing and moving into another business."
That desire for change isn’t limited to the fishermen. Tanmen is also trying to transform its industrial base. The local government’s website carries a report detailing moves to promote tourism and attract large numbers of visitors to enjoy the ocean views and local seafood. According to the report, the number of stores in the town has risen to 456 from 238 in the past 12 months.
Ornaments and jewelry made from seashells are a local specialty, and the rising number of visitors has seen the number of stores mushroom to 310 from 35 in 2013.
Despite all the changes, the political influence is still apparent. New apartment blocks at a local real estate project are named after islands, including Diaoyu and Huangyan. The prices of necklaces made from shells collected off Huangyan Island are 10 to 20 percent higher than for those made with shells from other areas, and some local restaurants sell fish caught near the island at a higher price than usual, calling it "patriotic food".
"I was surprised that the Filipinos detained our boat and fishermen. I have been fishing since I was 19 and have encountered foreign fishing boats and customs patrols many times, but I’ve rarely seen any real conflict," said He Zijun, a 49-year-old fishing boat captain. "It seems that frictions between the two countries have increased."
Following the impounding of the Qiong Qionghai 09063, He stopped fishing and now uses his boat to carry cargo and ferry passengers around the coast.
Mai Miao is still waiting for her husband and father-in-law to come home. She said her two sons, aged 12 and 16, are doing well in school, but if they fail to gain a place at university, they’ll have no option but to become fishermen like their father and grandfather.
"We don’t know any other way of making a living. When my husband comes back, we will still fish around the Nansha Islands," she said. "We have every right to do that – after all, these are our waters, aren’t they?"
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