ONBOARD BRP DAVAO DEL SUR: President Rodrigo Duterte has declared portions of Philippine Rise (Benham Rise) and Eastern Kalayaan as protected areas.
Duterte signed the proclamation on board BRP Davao del Sur to mark the first anniversary of his renaming the underwater land mass to signify the country’s sovereign rights over the resource-rich region.
In his speech, Duterte announced his formal declaration of parts of the Philippine Rise undersea feature as a Marine Resource Reserve.
“Around 50,000 hectares of the Philippine Rise shall become a Strict Protection Zone limited to scientific studies – at this time only Filipinos. I do not want (foreigners)… Only Filipinos,” Duterte said.
“While more than (300,000) hectares shall be designated as a Special Fisheries Management Area,” he added.
The President also led the launching of the country’s first scientific exploration of the resource-rich underwater plateau located off the coast of Aurora province.
“Today, we send off our team of talented and competent Filipino scientists who will undertake the Coordinated National Marine Scientific Research Initiatives and Related Activities or Conmira in the waters above the Philippine Rise,” Duterte said.
“I join the Filipino people in wishing you all the best as you embark on your mission to conduct mapping, surveys, biological investigations and assessment of the coral reef and fisheries stock in the area until November,” he added.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. had earlier said that 50 Filipino scientists would carry out the study.
Duterte however decided not to push through with the visit to the underwater land mass.
The President was supposed to sail toward the Philippine Rise to lead the celebration of the first anniversary of his renaming of the area. The President only reached the Casiguran Bay.
Speaking to reporters, Roque explained that Duterte only planned to send off the team of Filipino scientists that would undertake marine scientific research in the area.
“E kasi medyo malayo (It’s a little bit far). Its 120 nautical miles away. That’s logistic nightmare. So this is symbolic. We’re sending off the scientists, but the scientists will proceed. `Yun lang talaga (That’s it),” Roque said.
“The Philippine Rise is beyond the 200 nautical miles EEZ (exclusive economic zone) so you have to go beyond 200 nautical miles. So the beginning of the 20 miles is only the beginning of the Philippine Rise,” he added.
The Palace official also explained that the undersea region could only be seen by diving into it.
“Ginagawa natin ngayon dito ay symbolic na inaangkin natin ang atin at sinasabi ng Presidente na ang tanging yaman dito sa area na ito ay sa Pilipino lamang,” Roque said.
Faith in PH scientists
According to the President, scientific activities would be vital in the protection and management of the Philippine Rise and its vast resources.
“I have complete faith in the capabilities of our world class scientists and I recognize the need to provide them with the necessary means to fulfill your mandate. Indeed, these developments would not have been possible without the efforts of our dedicated public servants, scientists and legal experts who worked together to bolster our claim over the Philippine Rise,” he said.
“When the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved our claim to the Philippine Rise a few years ago, we were not just granted access to the vast resources. We were also entrusted with the responsibility to protect it from abuse and misuse,” he added.
Duterte then told the Filipino scientists to “explore this (new frontier) fully aware of our responsibility to (properly manage) and conserve its natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations of Filipinos.”
“As send off our experts to explore and discover what our seas have to offer, may we all have a renewed sense of commitment to promote the welfare of our people, safeguard our national interest, (and) assert our sovereign rights over our waters and all other areas within our jurisdiction,” the President said.
Extended continental shelf
The President signed the declaration following calls from an environmental group to declare a portion of the biodiversity-rich undersea region as a marine protected area.
Gloria Ramos, vice president of the Philippine chapter of international ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana, said that a petition was sent to the Palace in July 2017, which sought the proclamation of Philippine Rise as a protected area and of Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the Philippine Rise, as a no-take zone.
The group said that the Philippine Rise was declared as an “Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area” by 196 countries in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2016.
The 24 million-hectare region—13 million hectares of which is an extended continental shelf that the Philippines was awarded sovereign rights in 2012—sits east of Luzon.
Sen. Edgardo Angara Jr. and Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon have filed separate bills seeking the creation of a body in charge of studying, developing, and conserving the area.
Duterte renamed Benham Rise to Philippine Rise in May 2017, after Chinese vessels were discovered to be surveying the area.
Apart from having a “100-percent coral cover,” Benham Rise is also the breeding area of the Pacific bluefin tuna, one of the world’s most expensive fish.
A 2014 research cruise by scientists from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, UP Los Baños, and the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources at Benham Bank revealed at least 11 reef-building, two solitary coral, and 62 fish species, which makes it an “important area for fisheries.”