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STRICT PROTECTION ZONE AND SPECIAL FISHERIES MANAGEMENT AREA

Duterte proclamation gains wide praise

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, SAP Bong Go, and AFP Chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista during the send off ceremony of Filipino Marine Science Research at Casiguran Sound in Aurora Province. INQUIRER PHOTO/JOAN BONDOC

Scientists, maritime law experts and environmental groups praised the government’s move to declare a portion of Philippine Rise off Aurora province a marine reserve, saying it was a laudable exercise of jurisdiction over the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The proclamation, signed by President Duterte on Tuesday, designated that part of the underwater plateau, formerly called Benham Rise, the first marine protected area located within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer EEZ.

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Aside from the Tubbataha Reef, all other marine protected areas in the country are located on the coastline.

The President’s proclamation was “good in the sense that the government is complying with its biodiversity conservation commitment,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

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“It is [also] a good example of exercising jurisdiction over the EEZ and continental shelf,” Batongbacal added.

Strict protection zone

The proclamation designates 50,000 hectares of Philippine Rise a strict protection zone. It also sets aside 300,000 ha as a special fisheries management area.

The zone is closed to any human activity except for scientific research. Illegal fishing and overfishing would not be tolerated within the fisheries management area, according to Analiza Teh, the environment undersecretary for climate change service and mining concerns.

Teh said the marine reserve was a mere “1 percent” of the entire underwater region that spans 13 million ha.

“One of the justifications [for the proclamation] is the spectacular biodiversity feature of the area—almost 100-percent coral cover, [which is] morphologically and biologically significant,” Teh said in a telephone interview from Aurora province.

The declared marine reserve is just a part of Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the seamount that scientists have so far reached since the Philippines was awarded sovereign rights over the region in 2012 under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

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PH flag planted

Defense officials led ceremonies on Wednesday to lay a Philippine flag underwater and deploy a buoy at Philippine Rise on the sixth anniversary of the Unclos award.

In his speech read for him by Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the flag and the buoy were “our way of saying that there is no doubt that we will protect and defend our national sovereignty with all our might.”

The environmental group, Oceana, on Thursday welcomed the proclamation.

“With the proclamation, we, Filipinos must now take a bold stand to not just depend on [the] government but take on matters for the protection of Philippine Rise as our very own,” said lawyer Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, Oceana vice president.

Oceana has launched an online petition to declare the rise a protected zone. It had drawn more than 26,300 signatures as of Thursday.

Promoting conservation

“I support the move [to declare it a marine reserve] although some sectors feel it’s funny because there is no issue about Philippine Rise, as compared to the region west of the country,” said Decibel Eslava, dean of UP Los Baños School of Environmental Science and Management.

Eslava was referring to the conflicting territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea involving China, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

Teh said the objective of the proclamation was not to assert territorial claim, “but rather promote conservation.”

President Duterte’s proclamation came two months after Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu lifted the suspension of the grant of special permits for private use of protected areas, a move criticized by environment groups as an attempt to allow big corporations to exploit the country’s diminishing natural resources. — INQUIRER RESEARCH

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TAGS: Aurora province, Marine Reserve, Natural Resources, Philippine Rise
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