MANILA (REUTERS/PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the Philippine Coast Guard apprehended on Monday (May 16) two Chinese fishing vessels flying an inverted Philippine flag off the country's northernmost coast.
The ships were the Shen Lia Cheng with 12 crew members and the She Kou with 13 crew members.
The authorities were conducting a seaborne patrol aboard BFAR patrol vessels MCS 3010 and MM Patrol Boat 3049 when they chanced upon the two vessels in waters bound by Sabtang Island, Batanes in the north, Balintang Island in the west and Calayan Island.
Both had an inverted Philippine flag hoisted. They were detained on suspicion of poaching,
The ship's documents showed that they are registered in China and that they had no prior authorisation to traverse Philippine waters.
The vessels were escorted to Basco, Batanes for further investigation.
Undersecretary for Fisheries Atty. Asis G. Perez said the crew claimed they were just passing through but failed to provide documents for the right of safe passage.
China has by far the world's biggest fish industry, but depleted fishery resources close to China's shores have made fishing in disputed waters an economic necessity, fishermen and industry executives say.
The Chinese vessels were in waters that are not part of the disputed South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have conflicting claims.
Tension between the Philippines and China has risen as an international tribunal in the Hague prepares to deliver a ruling in the next few months in a case lodged by Manila in 2013.
The Philippines is seeking a clarification of United Nations maritime laws that could undermine China's claims to 90 per cent of the South China Sea. China has rejected the court's authority.
Speaking at a regular press briefing in Beijing, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he had no information and needed to further understand the situation.
Documents seized by Philippine authorities showed the vessels were Chinese registered.
The fishermen failed to show permits required to enter Philippine waters, BFAR said. "Based on existing rules, the fact that both foreign fishing vessels were flying a Philippine flag gave rise to the presumption that they are engaged in poaching," said BFAR director Asis Perez.
A Philippine court fined nine Chinese fishermen US$102,000 each in late 2014 after they were caught with hundreds of sea turtles in the disputed Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly islands of the South China Sea.
At the time, China protested against the arrests and refused to recognise their trial.