Oceana Philippines, together with its allies in the government and private sector, is urgently pushing for the legal protection of Benham Rise, now renamed Philippine Rise, as a marine protected area, and for the declaration of Benham Bank—the shallowest portion of the rise—as a no-take zone, where human activity is not allowed.
In a policy dialogue called “Bayanihan Para sa Benham”, which was hosted by Oceana and graced by representatives from various government agencies and other stakeholders, Mundita Lim, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said Benham Rise was designated as an ecologically and biologically significant marine area (EBSA) by 196 countries during the 13th Meeting of the Convention of Parties (COP) to the Convention of Biological Diversity in Mexico in December 2016.
EBSAs are said to be “geographically or oceanographically discrete areas that provide important services to one or more species or populations of an ecosystem or to the ecosystem as a whole, compared to other surrounding areas or areas of similar ecological characteristics, or otherwise meet the following scientific criteria: uniqueness or rarity; special importance for life-history stages of species; importance for threatened, endangered, or declining species and/or habitats; vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, or slow recovery; biological productivity; biological diversity; and naturalness.”
Benham Rise scored high in four of the seven criteria, indicating global recognition of its importance, and of it being pristine and unique.
The COP decision described Benham Rise as “relatively pristine” and “of critical ecological importance, including for offshore mesophotic coral reef biodiversity and for the sustainability of fisheries.”
It added that, “aside from being an important source of biodiversity and contributing to the resiliency of threatened ecosystems,” Benham Rise was also cited as “forming part of the only known spawning area of the Pacific blue fin tuna, Thunnus orientalis.”
Other world-famous EBSAs include the famed Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the Rajah Ampat Park in Indonesia.
“We need to conduct more research on Benham Rise to know exactly what there is to protect,” Lim said.
The Philippine government has launched several expeditions to the vast and still largely unexplored region. In May 2016, Oceana joined government scientists from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the University of the Philippines (UP), the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy for an expedition to Benham Bank.
The expedition team reported an astounding 100-percent coral cover in the surveyed area, where corals grew atop other corals. In a country where healthy reefs are the exception, rather than the rule, Benham Bank teems with marine life. Scientists cited the area as a potential refuge for shallow reef fish and other marine organisms that can be affected by climate change.
“Where else can we find 100-percent coral cover?” Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo Ramos asked. “This area is possibly the most pristine reef in the country, which is why it was declared as an EBSA.”
“We must work together and exercise our sovereign rights to nurture and protect it. The first step is to declare the pristine Benham Bank as a no-take zone, immediately shielding it from any form of exploitation,” she said.
Oceana has been pursuing its campaign through university talks, dialogues and photo exhibits, one of which was set up at the Philippine Senate from May 29 to June 2, 2017.
“We’ll actively protect and strongly defend the breadth and depth of our territories to ensure that future generations of Filipinos will still have the opportunity to take pride and find joy in our country’s rich biodiversity,” Sen. Cynthia Villar said.
“The Philippine Rise contributes tremendously to our biodiversity, with its vast reef ecosystem, presence of numerous species of fish, and other natural resources. Let’s continue to protect it,” she added.
Oceana is also gathering public support to protect the area through an online petition and sign-ups in its Benham Rise campus tours.
“We fully support our government’s initiative to develop a management framework to ensure the protection of this special place. Whatever the case, Oceana will always be ready to jump in and help,” Oceana marine scientist Marianne Pan-Saniano said.