By Manuel Mogato
INFANTA, Philippines (Reuters) - For years, the fishermen of the sleepy Philippine town of Infanta cared little for politics, international diplomacy and centuries-old squabbles over sovereignty.
That changed four years ago when China's coastguard swept in and seized the Scarborough Shoal, making it very difficult for the Filipino fishermen to get access to a tranquil South China Sea lagoon rich in fish stocks some 124 nautical miles off their shores.
Since then, they've barely broke even. Many have found other jobs.
But they're hoping a verdict on Tuesday by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague in a case lodged by the Philippines will change that, and allow them to fish without the threat of being chased and rammed by Chinese boats or blasted with water cannon.
"I hope we'll win the case so we can come back to Scarborough where there's abundant fish, and improve our lives," said Henry Dao, 45, as he watched his crew repair a wooden fishing boat on the shores of Pangasinan province, about 300 km (186 miles) northwest of Manila.
"I have high hopes the court will favor us."
What started as a standoff over six rocks poking above the seawater that were once a shooting range for the United States navy took on huge international significance when Manila angered Beijing by lodging the challenge under a United Nations' maritime convention in January 2013.
The 15-point filing didn't ask for a decision on sovereignty, but sought to set the record straight on its rights of maritime access.
In the bigger picture, it amounts to a David verses Goliath battle as the Philippines asked the court to decide the legality of China's claims to the South China Sea and its extensive building of islands on disputed reefs there. China's claims are expressed on its maps as the so-called nine-dash line, an ill-defined U-shaped demarcation drawn up after the defeat of Japan in World War II.
China has said it will not recognize the court's decision, but there are hopes among some Filipinos that Beijing might be pressured to let them fish at the Scarborough Shoal, the only place within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone where year-round, the waters are calm and fish keep reproducing.
For the fishermen who make up a third of Infanta's 30,000 people, the 16-hour trip to the prized shoal, where they fish for 10 days at a time, are necessary but perilous journeys.
CAT AND MOUSE
Rubenado Querubin, who captains a new boat set to make its maiden voyage soon after the court rules, estimates the costs of each trip at 120,000 pesos ($2,500) and said his crew have no choice but to run the Chinese gauntlet, or suffer big losses if they return without the seven tonnes of fish they need to catch to make a trip worthwhile.
"We are playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese," he said. "They're preventing us from getting near the shoal and they have armed soldiers in rubber boats chasing us."
The ruling will also have economic significance for the Philippines, where fishing accounted for 1.3 percent of gross domestic product in the first quarter. Domestic fish demand from a swelling population is rising.
The clashes with the Chinese can get very dangerous and costly. Boat owner Antonio Gono said only last week a Chinese boat had rammed a Philippine vessel, breaking its outrigger.
"We heard it over the two-way radio, they were seeking help," he said. "I think the crew are safe but their boat will have difficulty returning."
There are moves by the Philippine authorities to mitigate the problem by pushing fishermen to head elsewhere and use aggregating devices to trap tuna and other large fish, but this technology is mostly in the hands of commercial fishing fleets.
Luis Madarang, who heads the agriculture committee for the municipal authority of Infanta, is confident of a favorable ruling, but still wants to push plans to organize small Filipino boats into cooperatives to share equipment and boost their catch.
"Win or lose, we will help our fishermen," he said.
"It's very unfair for China to stay there or even share the resources in Scarborough Shoal because the Philippines owns that 100 percent."
Some Infanta fishermen, however, don't mind sharing, as long as they can make ends meet.
"We really do not care," said a man who gave only his first name, Lorenzo.
"Before China came, we are doing our business alongside Chinese, Vietnamese and even some from Hong Kong. We even exchanged food, drinks and fish catch. Everyone was happy."
(Editing by Martin Petty and Martin Howell)