Manila — “Benham Rise is part of Philippine territory. We must exercise our sovereignty over this area and assert our rights. The immediate creation of a management framework to ensure the protection of this special place and the conservation of its marine resources is a compelling first step,” says lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Vice-President for Oceana Philippines.
The Department of National Defense (DND) recently disclosed that a Chinese vessel conducted an unsanctioned survey in the region, believed to be rich in both marine and mineral resources.
Benham Rise is an undersea territory located east of Luzon. It includes a 13-million hectare extended continental shelf validated in 2012 by the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS) as the Philippines’ newest territory. This expanded the original region from 11.4-million hectares to 24.4-million hectares – just under the total land area of the country, which currently stands at 30-million hectares.
The Philippine government has conducted numerous expeditions to the region to study its resources. Last May 2016, Oceana joined government scientists from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), plus the University of the Philippines, Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy for an expedition to Benham Bank – the shallowest portion of the Rise.
The expedition team reported an astounding 100% coral cover in the surveyed area – extremely rare in the country and perhaps the only one – plus a diverse assemblage of marine resources. Marine scientists also documented a vast ‘mesophotic’ or deep-sea reef ecosystem at minimum depths of 50 meters, which experts cited as a potential source and refuge for shallow reef fish and other marine organisms which can be affected by climate change.
“With 100% coral cover, this area is possibly the only place left in Philippine waters in such a pristine state. Further research should be done to ensure that the area is developed sustainably. We must work together and exercise our sovereign rights to nurture and protect it – a first step would be to declare Benham Bank as a ‘no-take’ zone, immediately protecting it from any exploitation,” says Ramos.
Oceana has released an online petition urging Filipinos to declare their support for Benham Rise.