Since the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf recognized Benham Rise as the Philippines’s newest territory in 2012, our country’s territory has increased to 43 million hectares from 30 million hectares.
Early oceanographic explorations since 2006 have shown that Benham Rise can be a significant source of food for Filipino fishermen since the area is known as a migration path of different fish including tuna. Last May 23, the group for the Benham Expedition 2016 sailed on the shallowest portion of the vast seamount, on board the government research vessel MV DA-BFAR.
With the help of Oceana Philippines’ remotely operated vehicles and technical diver-videographers, marine scientists from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and University of the Philippines as well as technical divers from the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard, the expedition was able to record a dazzling array of soft and hard corals, fish, algae and sponges.
“We saw terraces of corals as far as the eye could see. It’s so exciting to know that we have such a vast and pristine coral reef ecosystem within Philippine territory,” says Marianne Pan-Saniano, marine scientist for Oceana Philippines, the Philippine arm of Oceana, an international organization that conducts science-based campaigns and studies focusing on oceans.
According to Margot Stiles, Oceana’s director of science and strategy, in all the decades of their experience studying the ocean, this is the first time they have seen a reef such as the Benham Rise. During the exploration, the team documented a vast mesophotic reef ecosystem (a coral ecosystems that shows presence of both light dependent coral and algae, and organisms that can be found in water with low light penetration) with coral reefs found at depths of up to 150 meters. Scientists believe that the deep sea reefs can serve as a potential refuge for shallow reef fishes that could be affected by climate change.
With the use of high tech equipment, the expedition team was able to extensively study the underwater terrain of Benham Bank covering 12 research stations, gathering many hours of video footage that are analyzed daily to compare data with the expedition in 2014 where they were only able to cover five stations and dive for 25 minutes. The group used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that took underwater photos and videos for two hours on a daily basis and deployed an equipment called the baited remote underwater video system (BRUVS) that measures fish populations.
“Benham Bank holds tremendous potential for discovering more unique species and outstanding samples of marine resources. Based on the huge success of this expedition, and the inspiring collaboration among the partners, we foresee government and stakeholders working together to protect and sustainably manage this extraordinary natural heritage which is now part of our territory,” says lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president for Oceana Philippines.
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