PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines (AFP) - A Philippine court on Wednesday sentenced 12 Vietnamese men to six months in jail and fined them US$100,000 (S$125,000) for illegal fishing, the prosecutor in the case said.
The fishermen, who were arrested on March 21 with a boatload of sharks just off the western island of Palawan, pleaded guilty last week, prosecutor Alen Rodriguez told AFP.
If the 12 cannot pay the fine, the equivalent of more than US$8,000 each and a huge sum for such fishermen, the judge could add more time to their sentence, said Rodriguez.
But in similar cases in the past, foreign fishermen caught in Philippine waters were allowed to go free after serving their sentences without paying the fine, he said.
"We will see if they can pay. If they cannot, then let us see what is done by the court," he said.
The Vietnamese embassy in Manila could not be contacted for comment.
Taking into account the three months that the 12 have already been in jail, they may be released in September, said clerk of court Hazel Mae Alaska.
Vietnamese fishermen have been caught repeatedly fishing in Philippine waters in recent years, mostly near Palawan, which is the closest major Filipino island to Vietnam.
The near-2,000-kilometre coast of Palawan is home to some of the region's richest fishing grounds.
The Philippines has few maritime resources to police the area, so fishermen from neighbouring countries regularly sail in.
Another group of 12 Vietnamese, arrested in 2013 collecting sea turtles near Palawan, are still in jail in the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa while their case for allegedly violating wildlife laws drags on.
If convicted, they face 12 years in jail, said Alex Marcaida, spokesman of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, an environmental law enforcement office.
In 2011, 122 Vietnamese were arrested near Palawan in the biggest illegal fishing bust in recent memory. They served jail terms of about six months, then were sent home.
The arrests of the Vietnamese fishermen have generally occurred in waters very close to Palawan, and not in areas of the adjoining South China Sea that are subject to competing territorial claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other neighbouring countries.