By Roy Mabasa
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Wednesday stood pat on his decision to allow only Philippine-flagged vessels to conduct marine scientific research (MSR) in the Philippine Rise, or Benham Rise, and only let foreigners “hitch a ride on our marine survey ships.”
“We can’t join their (foreign) ships as just passengers; foreigners turn over command and control, all data gathering facilities, the entire enchilada to Filipinos. Or no permission and/or ban stays—whatever it is since f______ no knows. But the effect is no foreign survey ship in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” Locsin told Director Jay Batongbacalof the University of the Philippines’Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (IMLOS) in a series of Twitter exchanges.
Batongbacal was explaining that the Philippines can organize and fund an MSR with foreign scientists and technical experts onboard similar to a project that UP and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) had conducted in 2016 with Oceania, a Washington-based ocean conservation group.
In that expedition, Oceana provided a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and technical diver-videographers to get more footage and allow researchers to analyze the marine life in Benham Bank more extensively.
The UP professor, who is an established expert in international maritime law, suggested that the Philippines can enter into cooperation agreements with international groups to enable Filipino scientists to use their ships, or join international research projects that cover the country’s own areas of research.
“Total ban would not be a good idea and counter-productive; the real issue is control and supervision, and ensuring data/info/outcomes are to our benefit. I suggest specific rules/protocols to ensure that. We have a model in the DOE (Department of Energy) service contract system; geophysical surveys often carried out by foreign companies under contract, with obligations for turnover of data. Similar system could be set up for PH to be able to use and control foreign MSR vessels. Science community can consider this or other models,” Batongbacal told Locsin.
To which, Locsin retorted: “So now tell me who do we give to or withhold from authority to survey? Flag of the boat or nationality of the surveying group leasing it? Need to inform everyone. For now only Filipino flagged ships allowed. We need clear rules,” he said.
While the Philippines cannot impose a ban, Locsin, however, said it can refuse to grant authority to a marine survey.
“But my rule is all or nothing; everybody or nobody qualified,” he said.
In March 2018, Malacanang issued a directive stopping foreign marine entities from conducting marine scientific research in the Philippine Rise to protect the country’s sovereignty.