The protection of tuna nursery and deep sea corals in Benham Rise east of the Isabela coastline has become a major concern for both the government and environmental advocates who see the ecological import and economic potential of the area.
Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the unexplored seamount, is one of the traditional fishing grounds of coastal dwellers on the northeastern coast of Luzon, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director Asis Perez said.
However, the area is also a hotspot for poachers, especially long-liners from neighboring countries, Perez added.
The government’s National Payao Program in Benham Bank from 2013 to 2015, along with a tuna fisheries assessment last year, are part of government efforts to exercise control over Benham Rise, he said.
“We have to proclaim to the world that this area is ours,” he added.
Payao is the local term for fish aggregating devices made of palm fronds and other materials that attract schools of fish. Albacore tuna were the dominant species in 2015, while big-eye tuna were more bountiful in 2013, Perez said during a forum at the University of the Philippines (UP) last month co-sponsored by Oceana Philippines.
With its wealth of marine resources, there is a need to craft a management framework for Benham Rise, said Jay Batongbacal, director of UP’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. The area includes the extended continental shelf, the Philippines’ newest territory recognized by the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012.
The highly prized Pacific Bluefin tuna are known to swim to the US and Mexico, but come back to spawn in the western Pacific including Benham Rise, according to fisheries expert Jose Ingles of World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines.
He said there is a huge potential for ecosystems preservation in Benham Bank to protect commercially valuable fish species, noting that Bigeye tuna is already overfished. “This can be our contribution to the global economy,” Ingles said.
The Biodiversity Management Bureau announced plans to organize a workshop on management strategies for the sustainable use of resources in Benham Rise, as there is a need for complete baseline assessment of the region.
One of the options being considered is to propose the declaration of Benham Rise as a marine managed area, with Benham Bank as the core zone with protected status, and the rest as exploration areas.
Marianne Pan-Saniano, marine scientist of Oceana Philippines, said Benham Bank is blanketed with coral assemblages, sponges, and algae. The underwater plateau serves as a refuge and nursery for many economically important fish.
“Before we exploit our marine resources, we should explore and find out what is there to lose,” said Oceana Philippines campaign manager Danny Ocampo.
During the first oceanographic exploration of Benham Bank in 2014, marine scientists found more than 50 species of fish and a thick cover of tiered plate corals, reported Edwin Villar, deputy executive director of the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD), which funded the trip.
James Konstantin Galvez