Philippine National Police officials say authorities have arrested a group of fishermen in a Chinese vessel in contested waters of the South China Sea.
Philippine National Police Maritime Group Chief Noel Vargas says officers of his unit in Palawan province arrested Chinese and Filipino fishermen Wednesday at Half-Moon Shoal.
"There are locals, the Filipino fishermen involved and there is a fishing boat with a Chinese crew also involved. So the PNP team apprehended this crew together with the boats."
Vargas says both the Philippine and Chinese vessels had close to 500 sea turtles in them. Catching sea turtles is banned in the Philippines.
Vargas says the 15 people arrested would be charged once they arrived in Palawan province. He says the trip back to Palawan is taking longer than expected because one of the vessels "is broken" and needs to be towed. Vargas says details are still sketchy on the circumstances that led to their arrest.
Half Moon Shoal is among the Spratly Islands and lies about 100 kilometers west of southern Palawan. It is within the Philippines 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines says part of the Spratlys and some other outcroppings fall within its exclusive economic zone, while China says it has "indisputable sovereignty" over practically the entire South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have partial or full claims to the sea which is teeming with marine life, is believed to hold vast gas and oil reserves and is a well traveled trade route.
At a regular briefing Wednesday China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed "a Chinese vessel was intercepted by a Philippine vessel."
She said, "Relevant authorities from China have arrived at the scene. We ask the Philippine side to give their explanations and deal with this case properly."
When asked whether China condones the reported illegal catch of turtles, she said China's regulations and laws "call on the fishermen to respect laws and follow relevant regulations."
An Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman says because Wednesday's arrests were related to the poaching of sea turtles, the incident is a law enforcement matter, not a military matter.
The Philippines filed an arbitration case with a United Nations tribunal over what it calls China's "excessive claims" in the sea. China rejects arbitration and has not responded to the case. At the end of March Manila submitted nearly 4,000 pages of supporting materials to the tribunal.
Relations between the two countries have become even more strained.
In recent years China has stepped up civilian patrols of the contested waters. Its surveillance ships have kept local fishermen out of Scarborough Shoal, which is 225 kilometers west of Zambales province in the Philippines. The ships have also been circling Second Thomas Shoal near Palawan, where a tiny Philippine contingent is garrisoned at a grounded old military ship.