Taiwan fishing boat captain Hung Yu-chi says he was at the helm in quiet seas on the last morning of a six-day trip when he noticed a black dot on the horizon.
Through binoculars, Yu-chi, 39, could see figures in orange on another boat, the color worn by both Taiwanese and Philippine officers as they patrol fishing waters claimed by each government. As the craft drew near, Yu-chi heard gunshots and realized the boat was from the Philippines. He shouted out to the rest of the crew on the Guang Da Hsin 28, including his father and brother in law, and increased speed.
“They were shooting by the time they got close,” his brother-in-law Hung Jie-shang, 42, said in a May 19 interview with him, Yu-chi and other family members at their home on Liuqiu Island, off the southwestern coast of Taiwan. “If we hadn’t run, we’d be dead.”
The family’s account of the May 9 attack that killed the 65-year-old patriarch, Hung Shih-cheng, has triggered a wave of nationalism in Taiwan, with President Ma Ying-jeou tapping the anger to put economic pressure on the Philippines to issue a formal apology. He has frozen the hiring of Filipino workers and told his people to stop traveling there.
The risk of deteriorating ties with its neighbor coincides with a slowdown in economic growth that saw Taiwan expand 1.5 percent in the first quarter from a year before, less than half the pace of the previous three months. Ma, who has served for five years, faces a 14 percent approval rating.
In question are the circumstances that led the Philippine patrol boat with 11 officers on board to fire as many as 59 shots on the 14-meter (46-foot) fishing boat. Taiwan and the Philippines have each claimed the vessel was in their waters at the time. Ma has rebuffed condolences offered by President Benigno Aquino and the offer of an apology conveyed through Amadeo Perez, chairman of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei.
The Philippines, which on May 18 rejected Taiwan’s demand for a joint investigation, is conducting a probe of the incident, presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said by phone.
Aquino said today that his country’s investigators are still waiting for permission to inspect the boat. Once the dispute over the shooting is settled, the Philippines will be willing to talk to “every neighbor” about fishing-ground agreements, he said.
“We reiterate our condolences to the family and we can assure them of an impartial investigation,” Valte said by phone. Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo declined to comment. “We don’t want to say anything that might affect the investigation,” Balilo said by phone.
Taiwan’s leaders will face domestic pressure to cooperate with China on territorial matters if they can’t reach a fishery agreement with the Philippines similar to one signed with Japan last month, according to Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Taipei. China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province and shares its maritime claims, has tussled with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan over rights to resources in disputed waters.
“Fishing is the most urgent issue because fishermen will go wherever they can,” Ding said by phone. “If this tension keeps rising, inevitably the Taiwanese government will succumb to the growing pressure to work with the Chinese government.”
Japan’s fisheries agency detained another fishing boat from Liuqiu today for entering Japanese waters, Shih Yi-che, a spokesman for Taiwan’s coast guard, said by phone. Japan has imposed a 4.3 million-yen ($42,000) fine, Shih said.
Yu-chi said the May 9 attack was unprovoked. “I knew we were within our waters,” he said in the interview.
Around 10 a.m. on that day, his fishing boat suddenly sped up from 3.3 knots to 12 knots, near coordinates southeast of the Batanes Islands between Taiwan and the Philippines, according to investigation findings announced by Taiwan’s justice ministry.
As shots were fired, Yu-chi said he put the boat on autopilot and called a relative on shore, before he, his family members and an Indonesian worker went below deck into the three-by-one meter engine room to hide.
The Hungs had been at sea for six days in their second trip on the vessel, finished in March at a cost of NT$8 million ($268,000) and paid for with a discounted government-arranged loan. Maintained properly, a boat can last up to 40 years, Jie-shang said.
A weeklong haul of tuna and swordfish netting NT$10,000 would be considered a success, though the family often caught less. The big goal remained a 400-Taiwan kilogram (520 lbs) blue fin tuna, which can sell for NT$1,500 per Taiwan kilogram (600 grams) at market, according to the captain’s elder sister, 44-year-old Tsi-ching.
This expedition wasn’t particularly successful, the brothers said. The family and their Indonesian employee, known as Ah-chi, spent about 10 hours a day tending to fishing lines and preparing bait for some 300 hooks, while rotating on three-hour shifts at the wheel. It was Yu-chi’s turn at the helm the morning of May 9.
While Yu-chi and the crew squatted in the engine room, bullets sprayed the boat, puncturing the hull, the glass windshield of the cockpit and a rice cooker. Thirty minutes into the attack, Yu-chi said, they could tell the rudder had been damaged.
“The boat was swerving this way and that, and then we saw fuel leaking into the engine room,” he said. He and Ah-chi started to refuel the engine from reserves stored below deck, while brother-in-law Jie-shang worked a remote control steering device. Suddenly, their father, squatting next to Jie-shang, cried out and toppled over, bleeding. His crew mates moved him to a lower bench and went back to refueling.
“At the time we could only think of saving our own lives,” Yu-chi said. Each man sustained burns from an engine running at full speed, said Jie-shang, showing bandages on his right arm.
Eventually the gunfire ceased and the patrol boat left. The men emerged when they ran out of fuel about one and-a-half hours after the first shots were fired, Jie-shang said. “By then, my father-in-law was already dead. We felt very helpless and hoped for another vessel to come soon.” The nearest boat in the area arrived two to three hours later, family members said.
Taiwan’s justice ministry said its investigation found a bullet had penetrated the deck floor and hit Shih-cheng in the neck.
With few options to make a living, the Hungs said they would repair their boat and return to sea. They have been a family of fisherman for at least three generations -- as long as anyone can remember.
“This is what we know,” Yu-chi said. “We still have to go back out there even if we’re scared.”