What is the Philippine Rise?

MANILA It has been nine years since April 8, 2009 when the Philippines formally asked a United Nations (UN) body to recognize the 13-million-hectare Benham Rise as part of the country's territory.

With a little more than a year left in the term of then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it would take the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea's (UNCLOS) Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf three years (until April 12, 2012) to adopt its sub-commission's findings on the Philippines' claim.

May 16 next week marks one year since President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed Executive Order (EO) No. 25 renaming Benham Rise to Philippine Rise, consolidating on the UN ruling in favor of the Philippines' claim.

MalacaAang on Wednesday announced plans for the Chief Executive to personally lead an expedition consisting of experts and officials to visit the area off Aurora province.

Natural submarine prolongation

The area has been termed a "natural submarine prolongation" of the Luzon island. It is 3,000 meters to 3,500 meters below sea level, except for the Benham Bank its shallowest point which is 48 meters to 70 meters below sea level.

Philippine marine scientists say it is home to at least 200 fish species, among them surgeonfish, hawk fish, and damselfish, and large predators such as the tiger shark, along with soft and hard corals, algae, and sponges.

The Philippine Rise can potentially yield the highest catch rate of tuna species, including big-eye, yellowfin tuna and albacore.

Studies conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) also indicate large deposits of methane in solid form, making it a potential rich source of natural gas.

What's in a name?

Online articles say the area has been known since the ancient times to inhabitants of Catanduanes Island in the Bicol region, southwest of the Philippine Rise, who called it Kalipung-awan, the Bicolano term for loneliness in an isolated place.

A briefing paper on the Philippine Rise by the Department of Foreign Affairs' (DFA) Foreign Service Institute - Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (FSI-CIRSS) notes that it was named Benham after American geologist Andrew Benham, who led the mapping of the area in the 1930s. Some sources say though that geologists named it after Admiral Andrew E.K. Benham who died in 1905 and who had led American presence in China, the Pacific and South America.

In any case, Sec. 1 of Duterte's EO 25 ordered that "the undersea feature presently known as Benham Rise in local and international maps and charts, shall henceforth be referred to as the Philippine Rise."

Strategic importance

In an article on The Diplomat, writer Steven Stashwick pointed out that control of the area could be of potential importance in international geopolitics, as it is near the Luzon Strait, between Taiwan and the Philippines, which in turn is of strategic importance to any navy moving towards the South China Sea from the Western Pacific Ocean, as well as for navies going the opposite direction.

Sovereign rights

According to the DFA's FSI-CIRSS, under international law, the Philippines has sovereign rights to explore and exploit living and non-living resources in the area of the Philippine Rise within the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

It remains an important fishing ground for tuna fishermen from Infanta and Real in Quezon; Baler, Aurora; Catanduanes; and other adjacent provinces along the northern tip of the Philippines.

The extended continental shelf, which is what most of the Philippine Rise is, extends 320 nautical miles from the territorial baseline. For the part of this continental shelf beyond the 200-nautical-mile EEZ, the country has sovereign rights only over resources in the seabed.

Much of the Philippine Rise is beyond 320 nautical miles, but it was granted to the Philippines because it was scientifically determined that the undersea formation is a natural extension of the country's continental shelf.

In the extended continental shelf, no one may undertake activities for exploring and exploiting mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil without the express consent of the Philippines, which also has the exclusive right to authorize and regulate drilling on the continental shelf for all purposes.

The Philippines may also establish and use artificial islands, installations and structures, conduct marine scientific research, and protect and preserve the marine environment.

Under the UNCLOS, however, all states have the right of freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as the right to lay submarine cables and pipelines and other lawful uses. (PNA)

Source: Philippine News Agency