Conserving SE Asia’s seas

opinion September 15, 2017 01:00

By Steen Christensen, 
Sally Yozell, Brian Eyler
Special to The Nation

The United Nations’ call to conserve and sustainably develop the oceans perhaps resonates most with Southeast Asia than in any other part of the world.



With a maritime territory three times the size of its landmass, the region is one of the world’s most bountiful and diverse maritime areas. The 10 Asean countries account for a quarter of the world’s fish production, and 20 million people depend on the fishery industry for their livelihoods. 

The region’s vast coral reef system comprises 34 per cent of the world’s reefs, and is a critical marine environment that provides essential habitat for fish and other marine animals to live and grow. Furthermore, corals and mangroves along the coast in Southeast Asia provide critical natural resilience against increasing storms and rising sea levels, as well as help to filter pollution as it runs off the land. But as populations expand and increasing stress is placed on these natural resources, Southeast Asia, like much of the globe, is at risk for overtaxing the marine environment. Asean member-countries must seek the right balance for sustainable development – one rooted in ensuring prosperity for all, while protecting the ocean. 

In the past two decades, fish consumption per person in Southeast Asia has increased from 13.1 to 33.6 kg, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that nearly 85 per cent of all global fisheries are fully or overfished. This reveals that Asean member states, with growing demands for fish from stocks that are depleted, are at the centre of food insecurity and sustainability issues. Furthermore, unsustainable fishing practices in the region threaten the majority of the region’s coral, where nearly a third of the world’s coral reefs live. 

Recent studies have also highlighted that five Asean member states were in the top 10 of plastic polluting countries in the world, all of which contribute to endangering sea creatures and damaging marine habitats that impact ecotourism and human health. This is further compounded by the effects of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing which is estimated to rob economies of up to $36 billion (Bt1.2 trillion) a year globally. Adding to this problem are the range of human health and security issues rampant in the fishing industry and carried out by criminal organisations that take advantage of low security at ports. In this region of the world, only three countries have ratified the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), an international treaty designed to help stop IUU fishing by mandating that foreign fishing vessels provide prior notice of entry into a port. Without PSMA ratification, port security officials in the region have fewer tools at their disposal to address the problem of fishing vessels entering illegal, unreported, and unregulated catch into the market. 

The challenges of unsustainable and illegal fishing, rapid coastal development, and pollution create opportunities for Asean member states to tackle one of the last frontiers for regional and global cooperation: the ocean. In recent years, Asean has made significant headway in meeting these challenges. 

At the 2016 Our Ocean Conference in Washington, many Asean states committed to create and manage new marine protected areas for the first time, a critical mechanism to fostering biodiversity and protecting the marine environment. The momentum of this conference, and the examples set by the initiatives of Asean states, will serve as important foundation for integrating best practices, policy discussions, and pledges in the future. 

The US-Asean Conference on Marine Environmental Issues held in Bangkok today will focus on blue growth, traceability practices, marine protected area creation, and sustainable fisheries management, to name just a few. The conference is sponsored by the US Department of State and managed by the Stimson Centre and IUCN’s Mangroves for the Future programme.

The Bangkok conference, along with Our Ocean 2016, which witnessed inaugural commitments from Asean member states, and the recent Economist’s Conference held in Bali earlier this year, all serve as models to showcase regional collaborative efforts, policies and technical work to prepare for the 2017 Our Ocean conference this October in Malta and the 2018 Our Ocean Conference in Indonesia. 

By building a collaborative platform for multiple stakeholders who work together locally, nationally and regionally, the Mangroves for the Future programme, which spans 11 countries in Asia, is a good example of an initiative that brings different stakeholders together to contribute to improved coastal conservation practices. A number of these stakeholders will be present at today’s conference in Bangkok to share their expertise and best practices with fellow ocean stewards. 

Moving forward together on the region’s marine environmental issues will contribute to fostering regional cooperation and collaboration to mitigate and reduce the human impact on the oceans and to achieve the sustainable development of our marine resources. 

Dr Steen Christensen is coordinator of the Mangroves for the Future programme at the Bangkok-based International Union for Conservation. 

Sally Yozell is director of the Environmental Security Programme at the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based think tank. Brian Eyler is director of the Stimson Centre’s SE Asia Programme.