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Captivating ecological beauty needing protection

By: Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos May 29,2016 - 08:54 PM

Mindfully Greenie

What began as a courtesy call to introduce Oceana Philippines, then a newly established international nongovernment organization focused on marine conservation in the country, to our foremost fisheries scientists at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, became the start of a dream to see its ecological richness, share them with the world and protect it. I am referring to the Benham Rise, which I am sure many Cebuanos, and Filipinos, for that matter, do not still have any idea where it is and what makes it significant.

Benham Rise is a 13 million hectare undersea area and the newest territory of the Philippines, confirmed on April 12, 2012 by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as belonging to us. It is found east of Luzon with the shallowest portion of 35 meters off the provinces of Aurora and Isabela.

According to Fisheries Undersecretary and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director Asis Peres, it “lies along a recognized migration path of important tuna species as well as within the recognized range of distribution of the northern Pacific bluefin tuna.”

Undersecretary Perez has said that Benham Rise was already a traditional fishing ground of fisherfolk from adjacent provinces even before the Philippines was officially awarded its territorial claim by the UN. The fisheries agency has initiated oceanographic studies and fishing surveys in the vicinities of the Benham Bank in 2013 and 2014 and an ongoing expedition this month.

The expedition made in 2014 showed a high biodiversity in pristine state. Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) Director Mundita Lim, in a presentation made on her behalf, at the Forum on Benham Bank held in April at the Malcolm Hall of the University of the Philippines College of law, believes that the Benham Bank Seamount has the potential to be a biodiversity hotspot. In said expedition, “the bottoms were found with excellent cover of mostly tiered, thick, and rigid foliose plate-forming corals.”

On May 24, Oceana joined marine scientists and other expedition team members from the BFAR, the University of the Philippines (UP) and other government agencies and sailed to Benham Rise, more particularly at Benham Bank, its shallowest portion, on board the government research vessel MV DA-BFAR.

It is an honor for Oceana to contribute in this expedition the technical assistance and essential equipment such as the remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and, for the first time to be used in Benham Rise, the baited remote underwater video system (BRUVS) to measure fish populations.

This technology uses footage from two cameras attached to a frame with fish bait at the center, and specially licensed software to estimate fish sizes and analyze the maximum number of fish seen at any one time. This method avoids the problem with double counting of fish that occurs in manual transect surveys.

We have seen the initial images from the expedition and marveled at the amazing beauty and richness of the corals, algae and marine life. More images and videos of the marine riches in the area in the succeeding days will be seen at the website of Oceana Philippines at http://ph.oceana.org/expeditions/benham_expedition/benhamexpedition/overview.

The 2016 expedition result is expected to assist key decision-makers to craft the best approach in managing and protecting Benham Rise.

With the overexploitation of ten of the thirteen principal fishing grounds in the country, there is an urgency for the government to assess and adapt the necessary measures, with the strong participation of stakeholders, to conserve and sustainably manage our ecosystems, including those in Benham Rise, upon which our life and livelihood all depend.

It is worthwhile to dwell on challenges facing our coasts and oceans, and what needs to be done:

“Human population is increasing. All over the world, people are moving toward the coasts. Wild marine fish landings have reached a plateau worldwide, but fishing effort is still rising. Marine and coastal resources and habitats are being used more intensively and in increasingly different ways and, thus, are degraded. Global climate change is affecting coasts and oceans through such phenomena as rising sea levels, changing habitats, migrating populations, and ocean acidification. Governance systems developed in the era of the “freedom of the seas” are struggling to keep up with modern technology and practices. Traditional single-sector management, in which human uses are managed separately, is inadequate and creates confusion and conflict. Together, these conditions have led in many cases to unsustainable development. The goal of marine conservation is to address these challenges by promoting sustainable development and use of coastal and ocean resources.” http://wildfishconservancy.org/resources/science-library/MarineManagedAreas_report_280.pdf

The hurdles, largely anthropogenic, are vast and we need to work together fast to ensure a sustainable development that our future generations deserve.

“Making Benham Rise a marine managed area, with the BANK as a core zone with protected/conserved status” as envisioned by BMB is deserving of support by policymakers and citizens alike.

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