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Duterte kicks off maritime research in Philippine Rise

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PHILIPPINE RISE â€” President Rodrigo Duterte marked the first anniversary of his renaming Benham Rise to Philippine Rise by sending off an all-Filipino team of 50 scientists to the vast area near Cagayan Valley to begin the country’s first massive scientific marine research there.


The send-off program commemorated the 2012 United Nations declaration that the submerged plateau, then known as Benham Rise, is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf. The President, at the same time, issued a new order proclaiming parts of the region as a protected area.

The President was also poised for a two-day visit to the Philippine Rise which consists of 13-million-hectare seamount in the Pacific Ocean near the Cagayan Valley but later decided that the program in Casiguran Bay on board a Philippine warship was enough to show how the Duterte administration is protecting the vast territory believed to be a rich sourch of fish and aquatic resources.


.Accompanying the President in sending off the 50-strong scientific team are Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu and some members of Congress, including Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.


The marine research is the first nationally-coordinated research to be conducted in the undersea region off the provinces of Isabela and Aurora since Duterte signed Executive Order No. 25 renaming Benham Rise to Philippine Rise on May 16, 2017. It is a follow up of research of the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Oceana and other groups in the past.


The major research is part of the Coordinated National MSR Initiatives and Related Activities (CONMIRA) that the national government agencies and research institutions are conducting in the Philippine waters from April to November this year.


CONMIRA is comprised of the Bureau of Food and Aquatic Resources, Marine and Geosciences Bureau and Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), National Mapping and Resource and Information Authority, Philippine Navy and University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI).


Duterte earlier ordered to stop all the marine explorations by foreign entities in the Philippine Rise and instead give priority to Filipino scientists.


Last week, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque announced that around 50 Filipino scientists will conduct the MSR.


 Dr. Cesar Villanoy of the UP-MSI said there is a need for more scientific exploration to determine the economic potential of the Philippine Rise.


Villanoy said the government should also develop a sustainable management framework for the development and protection of the area believed to be rich in marine resources, natural gas, oil and minerals.


He suggested to having a practical cooperation, possibly with other countries, for technological capability since research expeditions in Philippine Rise require the use of modern equipment such as remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) and Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS).


Villanoy said the MSR is a step towards creating a more comprehensive understanding of the area.


“This is just the beginning to know what is at the rise and understanding processes,” Villanoy said.


Dr. Mario Aurelio, director of UP National Institute of Geological Sciences (UP NIGS), has assured the Filipinos have the expertise to conduct MSR in Philippine Rise.


Aurelio, however, said the government should pursue a plan to establish a comprehensive National Marine Research Agenda (NMRA) that would fully equip local scientists by acquiring research vessels and other equipment particularly ROVs and BRUVS.


He said Duterte can issue an executive order for the establishment of NMRA that would incorporate all the sectors from solid earth to atmospheric and meteorological research.


For the past five years, the DENR has been conducting studies, which indicated large deposits of methane in solid form.


On the other hand, marine scientists from BFAR, UP and Oceana have documented a dazzling array of soft and hard corals, at least 200 fish species, algae and sponges as some of the biological diversity in the Philippine Rise.


The UP-MSI conducted the first oceanography survey in July 2012 while BFAR started a series of annual expeditions in 2013.


The results of the surveys boosted the Philippines’ submission to an extended continental shelf (ECS) in 2009.


Four years later, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) awarded and validated the country's claim, thus extending the country’s continental shelf by 118 nautical miles beyond the 200-NM legal continental shelf limits.


The Philippine Rise is geomorphologically distinct from the deep oceans floor. It forms a thick crust lying at about 3,000 to 3,500 meters below sea level, except for Benham Bank which is the shallowest point at 43-70 meters below sea level.


The Philippines has now sovereign rights and jurisdiction on both the water column and the seabed and subsoil of the extended continental shelf to conduct MSR, explore and exploit living and non-living resources, to establish artificial islands, and to protect and preserve marine environment.


The foreign researchers may do scientific research for as long as it has approval from the Philippine government.


The Benham Rise was named after American geologist Andrew Benham who surveyed the area in the 1930s.


Aside from sending off a team of Filipino scientists, Duterte is set to sign an executive issuance, most likely a presidential proclamation declaring the Philippine Rise and Kalayaan Island Group as Marine Protected Areas.


Another highlight of the Philippine Rise Commemoration Activity is the casting of ocean buoy and laying of flag marker in Benham Bank. 


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