Fields of foliose coral carpet large portions of Benham Bank, the only reef in the Philippines where coral cover exceeds 100%. (Oceana / UPLB)
Imagine diving in a place where corals seem to sprawl on forever. That’s Benham Bank – the shallowest portion of Benham Rise.
Renamed the Philippine Rise in 2017, Benham Rise is an undersea territory located about 250 kilometers east of Luzon. It includes a 13-million hectare extended section 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. Recent furor over a Chinese ship traversing the area in 2017 ignited much concern from the citizenry and generated significant media attention.
Two oceanographic research cruises – one in 2014 and another in 2016 – were led by scientists from the government, with another one scheduled this year. The 2016 expedition assessed parts of Benham Bank and found portions with an astounding 100% live coral cover – extremely rare in the country – plus a diverse assemblage of fish.
Marine scientists confirmed the existence of a vast ‘mesophotic’ or deep-sea reef ecosystem at minimum depths of 50 meters, which is a potential source and refuge for shallow reef fish and other marine organisms which are vulnerable to climate change. The Philippine Rise is also an important fishing ground for Filipinos, and a recognized spawning area for North Pacific Bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis), one of the most expensive fish on Earth.
Bluefin Tuna are known to spawn in the Benham Rise region. (Shutterstock)
These findings of the uniqueness and richness of the biodiversity in the area from studies of Filipino scientists have persuaded 196 State parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in December 2016 to adopt the Philippine Rise as an ecologically and biologically significant area.
Environmental groups such as Oceana, Greenpeace and Alyansa Tigil Mina are calling on the Duterte administration to declare a portion of the Philippine Rise as a protected area, including Benham Bank as a ‘no-take’ zone, calling for a clear management framework for its long-term sustainability.
“With potentially undiscovered species and 100% live coral cover, Benham Bank is possibly the most pristine reef in the country. We call on the government to prioritize the protection of our marine resources and habitat and our patrimony now, for the present and future generations,” says Oceana Philippines Vice President Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos. Oceana reiterated its call for the government to:
- Immediately declare Benham Bank, the shallowest part of Benham Rise, as a ‘no-take’ zone. The actual size of the Bank is just 17,000 hectares but a buffer zone around it would help a lot.
- Finalize and implement a plan for the sustainable use and management of the entire Benham Rise area, which spans 24 million hectares.
- Support our brave yet largely unsung Pinoy scientists who have been doing cutting-edge research with a fraction of the budget other scientists normally get.
Yuneoh supporters can sign this online petition to help protect Benham Rise today!