The Benham Rise – The newest jewel in the Philippines’ crown

Sitting beneath the waters of the Philippine Sea, approximately 250 kilometres east of the Northern Philippine provinces of Isabela and Aurora, is the Benham Rise.

The rise is a seismically active undersea region and extinct volcanic ridge with an area of around 13 million hectares.

By comparison, the main Philippine island of Luzon, where the capital city Manila, 30 of the country’s 81 provinces and 48.5 million residents – nearly half of the country’s total population – are located has an estimated area of only 10.46 million hectares.

Although it has been decades since this area was first mapped, it has only recently generated significant attention both in the country and overseas.

Brief history

The area’s southernmost waters were already providing a means of livelihood for the indigenous people living in the surrounding coastal villages, even before the country was colonised by Spain in the sixteenth century.

The early settlers on the east coast of what later became the province of Catanduanes made a living by fishing in the vast waters that lay east of their communities. These waters became a significant part of the local culture and folklore.

Mapped by American surveyors for the first time in 1933, the plateau is said to have been named after Andrew E. K. Benham, a US Navy admiral who served on Union gunboats in the American Civil War and who later became commandant of Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California.

The undersea region remained largely untouched until local scientists conducted studies on the country’s fault models in the years following the July 16, 1990 7.8-magnitude earthquake that claimed 1,621 lives and left an estimated US$639 million in damages across Luzon.

The collected seismic, magnetic, and other geological data about the waters and the undersea land masses just off Central Luzon (the area most affected by the earthquake) also revealed the Benham Rise to be within the Philippines’ extended continental shelf according to the definition from the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS).

Armed with these findings, the Philippine government formally appealed for UN recognition of their assertion that the area is indeed part of the country’s extended continental shelf. A partial territorial claim in 2001 was the first to be filed while the full territorial claim was submitted to the UN eight years later.

 The UN gave its approval on April 12, 2012, in effect making the Benham Rise part of Philippine territory.

Recent exploration

The Philippine private and public sectors, as well as some organisations from other countries, have been conducting regular exploration missions of the Benham Rise area ever since the country received official UN approval of its territorial claim.

Their collective efforts uncovered a large marine environment housing a diverse array of fish, coral, algae, and sponge species. One of the biggest concentrations of these is found in the waters of the Benham Bank, the region’s shallowest point with a depth of 35 to 50 metres.

Scientists from the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have also been looking into the area’s viability as a source of natural gas. This course of action was initiated after studies confirmed the presence of deposits of methanehydrate or methane ice beneath the surface of the landmass.

Because of the vast methane deposits found within the Benham Rise, the area is likely to become the site of a new offshore oil platform to augment and ultimately replace the one at the Malampaya gas field just 80 kilometres northwest of the island province of Palawan.

The facility at Malampaya is the only operational offshore oil platform in the Philippines. However, the gas field’s proven reserves of approximately 3.2 trillion cubic feet are expected to run out within eight years.

Exploration efforts have also uncovered the presence of manganese within the rise. With manganese being a vital component in the production of iron, steel, and aluminium alloys, the region will likely draw the attention of those from the industrial manufacturing sector as well.

A boost to the economy

The national government and the domestic fishing industry have also come to recognise the abundance of tuna – particularly Pacific bluefin, albacore, and big-eye – and other commercially valuable fish species.

This led to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) of the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) encouraging fishermen who live in the coastal communities of Isabela province to ramp up their fishing activities in the area.

The BFAR hopes that increased fishing activity by the local fishermen will help put into motion the Philippine government’s long-term plan of making the best possible use of the Benham Rise area instead of letting it sit untouched, as was the case in the decades following its discovery.

With the residents of outlying coastal villages having already been involved in fishing for centuries, they will have little difficulty in achieving this goal.

It comes as no surprise that the area has also become a hotspot for illegal activities such as poaching, potentially harmful fishing practices, and unauthorised intrusion by foreign fishing vessels. With the BFAR and the Philippine Coast Guard scheduled to receive additional patrol boats over the next three years, it is expected that a significant portion of this composite fleet of government vessels will be tasked with enforcement duties in the region in light of its potential contributions to the national economy.

The future of the Benham Rise

Efforts to explore the region continue as both the government and private business and advocacy groups come up with plans on how to best utilise and preserve the valuable resources found therein.

The possibilities are limitless considering the Benham Rise’s vast size. Even the next few years will be exciting as there is no telling yet what else will be discovered, or what other actual projects will be implemented by the public and private sectors besides those projects already in place.

It therefore goes without saying that the Benham Rise deserves recognition, especially by Filipinos. It is more than simply the newest addition to their country’s territory; it is also as a key contributor to the country’s economy.

Nelson E. Dela Cruz