UP confirms Filipinos on board Chinese ship in Benham Rise

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 3) —  At least four Filipinos are on board the Chinese vessel Ke Xue, which is doing research on Benham Rise.

University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) Deputy Director for Research Dr. Cesar Villanoy told CNN Philippines, apart from representatives from the UP-MSI, there are also experts from the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

The announcement came amid criticisms against the governments' move to  grant China's request to explore the country's waters, with the long-standing dispute in the South China Sea.

Villanoy also said the Ke Xue is expected to complete its study this weekend.

Based on China's permit application, the ship will be conducting research for more than 30 days but is expected to only stay within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone near Benham Rise for three to six days.

Earlier, Malacañang explained that the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IOCAS) was granted the permit to do research in Benham Rise or the Philippine Rise after it had satisfied two conditions -- that there should be a Filipino on board its ship, and that the results of their study should be shared with the Philippines.

Philippines, part of China-led North Pacific project

Villanoy, who is part of a technical working group at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the UP-MSI had recommended to the agency to approve China's permit not only because it met the conditions of the government, but also because the research is part of the North Pacific Ocean Circulation Experiment (NPOCE), which IOCAS leads.

The Philippines, United States, Japan, and South Korea are participants to the NPOCE.

The NPOCE is studying what's called the Kuroshio current, which passes through Benham Rise. It transports heat from east of the Philippines toward Japan.

Villanoy highlighted the importance of studying the Kuroshio because it influences patterns of the El Niño and La Niña weather cycles not just in the country, but in the entire Pacific. It also affects the productivity of marine species.

But studying the Kuroshio and other related water properties is complex and requires extensive resources, which at present, Villanoy said, the Philippines does not have.

Here's where the Chinese come in.

"Most of Benham Rise – the 24 million hectares, is in 3-kilometer deep water. We don't even have a ship that can lower an instrument 3-kilometers pababa…They have submersibles – mas malalim 'yun, may kasama pang tao…'Yung capabilities ng ship nila talaga mas advanced, designed for deep sea work," said Villanoy.

For this study, the Chinese will be using a Conductivity, Temperature, Depth or  CTD sensor.

Villanoy explained, "Ilo-lower lang 'yun tapos inaakyat. In three locations off Isabela, magi-iwan sila ng instrument to measure the flow. Iiwan 'yun nang matagal, almost a year bago nila balikan."

[Translation:It will be lowered, then raised. In three locations off Isabela, they will leave the instrument to measure the flow. They will leave it underwater for almost a year, then retrieve it.]

Villanoy added as standard practice for countries conducting marine research in the Philippines, China is expected to provide all data from the study.

He stressed, however, that while the country lacks high-tech equipment similar to those used by China, local scientists are still capable of conducting some of the measurements being done by the Chinese.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)  has been doing this for many years, he added.

Local scientists from the BFAR, UP-MSI, UP-Los Banos, Philippine Navy, and PCG have done field work in Benham Bank – the shallowest portion of the Benham Rise, in 2014 and 2016.