It was a proud Filipino moment, especially for Filipino scientists and researchers, when President Duterte, aboard the BRP Davao del Sur on May 15, assured total support to the all-Filipino team of marine scientists and researchers, who will conduct biological investigation and assessment of the vast natural bounties and rich resources of the Philippine Rise.
Scientists expressed optimism on new discoveries during the research in the rich vast marine area.
Dr. Doralyn Dalisay, a member the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP), said in a news interview that the vast resources underneath can be a source of new drugs, new antibiotics, new anticancer compounds, anti-dengue and anti-malaria.
“We could find something new here that we could exploit for drug discovery,” Dalisay, a DOST Balik Scientist and a marine scientist from the University of San Agustin, Iloilo, said in a news release from the DOST-NRCP. She was part of the DOST-NRCP contingent to the Philippine Rise commemoration.
Dalisay is currently conducting a research on marine sediments in the NRCP-funded project, titled “Marine Sediment-Derived Actinobacteria: New Vista for Natural Products Discovered in the Philippines,” a three-year program.
In its first year, Dalisay has already discovered antimicrobial actinobacteria from marine sediments in the islands of Cebu, Bohol, Negros Occidental and Panay, which are essential in discovering new antibiotics.
Dr. Gil Jacinto, representing the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), said that besides the rich marine biodiversity, the importance of Philippine Rise is seen in fisheries, oceanography and meteorology. He hoped for the continued support of the government in their research activities.
“Research will not only be done in two years, but decades, for the future generation,” he added. Jacinto is a member of the Division V Biological Sciences of the NRCP.
In his speech aboard BRP Davao del Sur, Duterte said: “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 in the waters above the Philippine Rise.
“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. These activities will 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 their mandate,” Duterte was quoted by in the DOST-NRCP news release.
The President led the one-year commemoration of the renaming of Benham Rise to Philippine Rise under Executive Order 25, which was signed on May 16, 2017.
He declared that around “50,000 hectares of the Philippine Rise shall become a Strict Protection Zone limited to scientific studies—at this time only Filipinos, while more than [300,000] hectares shall be designated as a Special Fisheries Management Area.”
50 marine scientists and researchers
About 50 marine scientists and researchers from government agencies and universities who will be part of the marine scientific research initiatives were welcomed by Lt. Gen. Emmanuel B. Salamat, commander of the Northern Luzon Command, while Director General and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon presented them to Duterte.
The DOST, through its councils—the DOST-NRCP and Philippine Council for Agriculture and Aquatic Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD)—was part of the contingent.
The others were from the UP-MSI, UP-Los Baños, UP-Visayas, Mindanao State University (MSU) Tawi-Tawi, Ateneo de Manila University, De LaSalle University and University of Santo Tomas.
Science Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña, one of the honored guests, congratulated the scientists and researchers in the all-Filipino team to conduct research in Philippine Rise.
Historic buoy casting, flag marker laying
On the second day of the event, BRP Davao del Sur sailed to the shallowest part of the Philippine Rise bank. Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna led the activities and reiterated the ownership of the resource-rich 13-million hectare underwater plateau by the Philippine government.
At the singing of the national anthem with a human flag formation at the BRP Davao del Sur deck, the first buoy was cast, followed by the laying of a flag marker underneath the Philippine Rise.
This was accompanied by the sailing of ships of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources nearby, as Philippine Air Force FA-50 fighter jets also made a fly-by.
Accordingly, this was the single largest coordinated mobilization of the Philippine Navy and Philippine Air Force in recent years, possibly its first major operation in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Dr. Clarita Carlos, a member of the NRCP Governing Board and Governmental, Educational and International Policies Division, was also among the honored guest at the event.
DOST-NRCP staff also participated in the two-day activity and were part of the human flag formation, representing the four stars of the Philippine flag. They were Dalisay, Maria Elena A. Talingdan, Beverly Mae de la Cruz and Cecilia Baquireza.
The National Security Council, through Director Renia Corocoto, invited marine scientists who are members of the DOST-NRCP.
Philippine Rise: ‘Atin ito! [It’s Ours!]’
In 2012 the United Nations awarded the then-Benham Rise, and now Philippine Rise, to the Philippines as an extension of its continental shelf. With the ruling, the country was granted “sovereign rights” over Benham Rise, which means the Philippines has the exclusive rights to explore and exploit resources here.
“Philippine Rise: Atin Ito!” were written in the banners, messages, exhibits and in the minds and hearts of all the scientists, researchers, representatives and volunteers during the two-day event.
Duterte said: “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.
“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.
“Let us, therefore, 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 we 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.”
Oceana: ‘Much-awaited’ move
Environmental group Oceana Philippines, which has been campaigning for the protection of Philippine Rise, commended the President and government officials and partners from the civil society and private sectors who worked tirelessly to protect the Philippine Rise.
Lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president of Oceana in the Philippines, said in a news release, “The presidential proclamation is much awaited as it paves the way for the conservation, management and protection of corals, fisheries and the rich biodiversity in the iconic place. It is now subject to the governance structure and requirements under the National Integrated Protected Areas System.”
She added this is much needed to protect fragile marine habitats, address food security and increase the resiliency of our marine ecosystems to the impacts of climate change.
Ramos also noted that the proclamation is highly significant as it has happened this year, which was declared as the International Year of the Reef and the month of May as the Month of the Ocean.
Marianne Pan Saniano, marine scientist for Oceana Philippines, said the protection of the Philippine Rise was achieved through the pooled efforts of government agencies and advocates who supported the urgent call to protect the Philippine Rise, and especially declare the Benham Bank as a strict protection zone.
Oceana and Filipino scientists have been doing research in Philippine Rise.
“When we went to Benham Bank in 2016 with our government scientists, Navy and Coast Guards, we saw terraces of corals, as far as the eye could see. We still have such a vast and pristine coral reef ecosystem within Philippine territory, which we still need to protect,” Saniano said in an Ocean news release.
In 2016 government scientists reported 100-percent coral cover in several sampling sites during an expedition in Benham Bank, and documented diverse species of reef fishes, Oceana said. Scientists said the Philippine Rise is also the spawning site of the Pacific Bluefin tuna, one of the most expensive fish in the world.
Image credits: Maria Elena A. Talingdan/DOST-NRCP