Vietnam: The Fishermen and the Sea

Fishermen from the island district of Ly Son in central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province have been fishing in waters near the disputed Paracel Islands for more than 200 years. In recent years, however, they say Chinese naval personnel regularly confiscate their catches, destroy their equipment, ram their vessels -- and even detain them.

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Part 1: Vietnamese fishermen call for protection of livelihoods

Frequent harassment by China’s navy is destroying the traditional livelihoods of fishermen from Vietnam, who say their government must provide them with better protection while they ply their trade in contested waters in the South China Sea.

Fishermen from Ly Son—an island district that is part of central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province—say Chinese naval personnel regularly confiscate their catches, destroy their equipment, and even detain them and ram their vessels in waters near the disputed Paracel Islands where they have fished for more than 200 years.

A fisherman from Ly Son surnamed Hai told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he had been detained by China’s navy in the area four times in recent years.

“[Each time] they took away our equipment, the fish … everything,” he said.

“They took our boats and towed us [away] and we often didn’t know where we were because they put us on their ship and blindfolded us.”

According to Hai, Chinese naval personnel have repeatedly confiscated Vietnamese vessels and demanded that residents of Ly Son pay “fines” to get them back.

“Actually, the payment was [a form of ransom] so fishermen would be released,” he said.

Vietnam fishermen are frightened of future engagement with Chinese ships but must continue fishing in order to support their family. Photo: RFAThey said most fishermen do not have the necessary equipment to communicate with Vietnam’s navy and coast guard, and question whether they would even come to their aid if they could contact them when confronted by Chinese vessels.

“I'm angry, but there is nothing I can do. I must continue to fish and to work, even if they chase us,” he said.

“Each time we go to sea, it costs 200-300 million dong (U.S. $8,800-13,200) to outfit our boats, and if we return to port [without fish] we lose that money … and cannot finance another trip,” he added.

“We want to fight for sovereignty over the Paracels [if the Chinese harass us], but we have to think about our livelihoods first.”

Another fisherman from Ly Son surnamed Truong told RFA said he had also been detained by Chinese navy personnel “but they only robbed us and then let us go.”

Truong said that, like Hai, he is frightened of future engagement with Chinese ships but must continue fishing in order to support his family.

“All of my life I’ve had to keep working to feed my children and pay for their education, while [only earning enough for other] bare essentials,” he said.

“If it was just me and my wife, I would have stopped going to sea a long time ago. [The Chinese] treat us with disdain and put their guns to our heads … they consider our lives worthless.”

Call for support

China’s Supreme Court said in August last year that the country will protect its territorial sovereignty and navigation interests within a nine-dash demarcation line that Beijing uses to claim 90 percent of the South China Sea—including the Paracels—and jail for up to one year those caught illegally fishing in its waters.

China's territorial claim to the South China Sea includes two disputed island chains. Graphic: RFAHai said that working the waters near the Paracel Islands should be profitable because of their proximity to home, but that fishermen often lose money because of Chinese interference.

Phan Huy Hoang, chairman of the official Quang Ngai Province Fishery Association, vowed at the time that Vietnam’s fishermen would continue to work in the waters, and said his country would take measures against China if necessary.

But while Hanoi has urged Vietnam’s fishermen to continue their trade near the Paracels and uphold the nation’s claim to the islands, Hai and Truong said the government must do more to support them.

Instead, they said, fishermen facing danger must first speak to representatives of their official unions, who then contact local authorities on their behalf.

Hai said that despite assurances of protection from local authorities, “[they] don’t often keep their promises.”

“In general, they are quick [to respond] when we are near them, but if we are far away it takes them much longer to act,” he said, adding that timing is critical when fishing boats are pursued by much more powerful Chinese vessels.

The questionable support means that “very few fishermen dare approach the Paracel Islands at present,” according to Hai.

Truong said he feels equally powerless in the face of China’s maritime might.

“Our fishing vessels are of lower power capacity ... so even when we see them as tiny spots on the horizon, we have to immediately flee,” he said.

“How can we small ants fight against these giant vessels? They have huge guns and can attack us without fear … Our fishing boats are weak and are easily damaged when China’s steel ships ram against them.”

The two men said most fishermen in Vietnam support their government’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, but believe they are operating on their own when they work in the waters because of what they believe is a lack of official support.

International ruling

Chinese rescue vessel Nanhaijiu 115 on South China Sea on March, 2014. Photo: AFPOn July 12, 2016, an international arbitration tribunal decided in a case brought by the Philippines that China has no right to resources within the nine-dash demarcation line and cannot claim a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone around reefs and atolls in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

The Spratlys and Paracels, which Vietnam calls Truong Sa and Hoang Sa respectively, are located amid strategic shipping lanes and abundant fishing grounds, and may contain oil and natural gas reserves under the seabed.

Vietnam and other countries claim the two island chains as part of their own territory, but Chinese forces have repeatedly attacked and chased away fishing boats from the area over the last few years.

Vietnam welcomed the court’s July decision and has continued to assert its sovereignty over the islands. China, however, dismissed the ruling, that invalidated nearly all of Beijing’s claims of exclusive access to the waters.

Reported by Chan Nhu for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Thuy Brewer. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Part 2: China's incursions, pollution force Vietnam's fishermen to quit fishing

Vietnamese fishermen are abandoning their trade because they can no longer work safely in the South China Sea and cannot sell what they catch off the coast of Vietnam, according to sources.

Residents of Ly Son, in central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, and nearby Da Nang city say Chinese naval personnel regularly confiscate their catches, destroy their equipment, detain them and ram their vessels in the South China Sea near the disputed Paracel Islands, where they have fished for 200 years.

If they fish closer to home to avoid confrontations further out to sea, the fishermen told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, few people buy their catch because they fear contamination from a toxic chemical spill that occurred last year off the coast of central Vietnam.

Vietnamese fishermen are abandoning their trade because they can no longer work safely in the South China Sea. Photo: RFA“There are no fish to catch and when we can bring fish to shore, they sell for so cheap,” said a fisherman from Ly Son surnamed Truong.

“Our work is unstable and we are more likely to stay home than go fishing. We have gone to sea for a whole month, but haven’t made any money.”

A resident of Da Nang surnamed Sau told RFA he had quit fishing after 20 years because he couldn’t fill his hold anymore and that many others in his city had done the same.

“These days, fishermen can only fish near the shore for one or two days, and they seldom travel far from there,” he said.

“Many of them have quit fishing—in Da Nang there are probably less than ten sea fishing vessels left.”

Those who continue to fish can’t earn enough money to pay the debts they incur ahead of each trip, he said, despite receiving government subsidies for fuel and loans for boat construction and repairs.

Sau said he now uses his boat to transport tourists from Da Nang to islands off the coast, but his income is no longer stable.

“There aren’t transportation jobs for me to do everyday,” he said, calling on the government to provide work for people who can no longer fish for a living.

“In the past, a fisherman could afford to feed five to 10 people in his family, but these days you could barely feed two people.”

Another resident of Da Nang, surnamed Beo, said he continues to fish, but recently upgraded his boat to transport tourists because the money he earned wasn’t enough to support his family of five.

“I [can expect to] transport tourists one day a week, he said.

“Some weeks I can earn one million dong (U.S. $44), but others I only make 700-800 dong (three or four cents). I use this bit of extra income to help send my three kids to school.”

Chemical spill

Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan acknowledged in June that its steel plant run by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation released toxic chemicals in April that killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen who ply the waters off central Vietnam near Da Nang and Ly Son.

Formosa pledged to pay U.S. $500 million to clean up the spill and compensate people affected by it, but the government has faced protests over the amount of the settlement and the slow pace of the payouts.

A fishwife surnamed Tham told RFA that the spill had wreaked havoc on the fish population of central coastal Vietnam and created serious difficulties for her family.

“Recently my husband caught some fish, but I couldn’t sell them, which is why I don’t have money to buy fuel for his boat to return to sea,” she said.

Tham, who has been selling her husband’s catch at the Ly Son market for years, said fish that normally sells for more than 100,000 dong (U.S. $4.50) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) no longer fetches even half that price.

“People are very scared when they eat fish, so [earning a living] fishing has become very difficult,” she said.

Tham urged Vietnam’s government to pay greater attention to the plight of the country’s fishermen and suggested additional subsidies could help alleviate the difficulties they endure. “They must support the fishermen who need fuel to go fishing,” she said.

“Otherwise, life in Ly Son this year will be quite miserable.”

Crop infestation

A recent infestation of worms had decimated their garlic crops. Photo: RFALy Son, which is also known for producing special varieties of garlic and onions, recently suffered a particularly bad harvest, and the combined lack of income from fishing and farming had left families increasingly desperate, according to Tham.

“People from Ly Son are very hungry because we have lost our crops and also because our seas are not producing,” she said.

Several residents of Ly Son told RFA that a recent infestation of worms had decimated their garlic crops and that effective pesticides were either unavailable or too expensive.

They said a program launched by the government to provide subsidized loans to garlic planters was being implemented inefficiently, while experimental pesticides delivered by specialists had done little to protect their crops.

Reported by Chan Nhu Hoang for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Thuy Brewer. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Part 3: Widows of fishermen lost at sea face hardship in Vietnam

Nguyen Thi Lieu is one of several women from Ly Son, in central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, whose husbands have died while braving the dangers of the South China Sea to earn a living as fishermen.

The work is strenuous, conditions are often life threatening, and boat crews regularly face other difficulties such as harassment from Chinese Naval vessels in the disputed waters.

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Lieu, is one of several women from Ly Son, whose husbands have died while braving the dangers of the South China Sea to earn a living as fishermen. Photo: RFAThose who perish at sea often leave behind families that relied on them for financial support. Lieu recently told RFA’s Vietnamese Service about how her family had struggled to make ends meet since her husband’s death 13 years ago.

"When my husband died, my older son was seven and I was two months pregnant. On the third day of my husband’s fishing voyage, I was told he had died and his body was later brought home … He went off to fish near the [disputed] Paracel and Spratly islands [in the South China Sea] one day, and the next he was dead, without even having said goodbye."

"I did my best to overcome my grief and continue to support my two boys [through farming], but it’s been difficult … Our life is filled with hardship and hunger. We are in great misery. With the price of garlic and onions having dropped and the pests as bad as they have been these days, I cannot afford to support my children. I’ll have to change my job. With no income, I can’t feed my kids. The economy is so bad right now."

Lieu’s eldest son Hoi, who is now 20 years old and enrolled in university, told RFA he regularly returns home to help his mother earn an income, but said life hasn’t been easy for his family since his father died years ago.

"Mom says she has endless difficulties and has to borrow money from her neighbors … I try to help her cultivate the soil and transport the onions home [when I can come to visit]. I always feel that a part of me has been missing since my dad died and I feel jealous of other kids whose fathers are still with them. But as time goes on, I become more used to our unlucky circumstances."

"Before he left, he sat and played cards with me, but then he went away forever…"

Reported by Chan Nhu Hoang for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Thuy Brewer. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.