Conserving Southeast Asia’s seas

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 thrice the size of its landmass, the region is among the world’s most bountiful and diverse maritime areas. The 10 Asean states 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 percent 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 nations must seek the right balance for sustainable development— one rooted in ensuring prosperity for all, while protecting the seas.


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 Organization estimates that nearly 85 percent of all global fisheries are fully or over-fished. This means that Asean states, with growing demands for fish from depleted stocks, are at the center of food insecurity and sustainability issues. Furthermore, unsustainable fishing practices threaten much of the region’s coral system, where nearly a third of the world’s coral reefs live.

Recent studies also show that five Asean states are among the top ten plastic-polluting countries in the world, thus contributing to endangering sea creatures and damaging marine habitats that impact ecotourism and human health. This is compounded by the effects of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is estimated to rob economies of up to $36 billion a year globally. Adding to this problem are human health and security issues rampant in the fishing industry and carried out by criminal groups that take advantage of low security at ports. In this region, 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 IUU catch into the market.


The challenges of unsustainable and illegal fishing, rapid coastal development, and pollution create opportunities for Asean states to tackle one of the last frontiers for regional and global cooperation: the seas.

The US-Asean Conference on Marine

Environmental Issues being held in Bangkok on Sept. 14-15 provides an opportunity to do just this. The conference, sponsored by the US State Department and managed by the Stimson Center and IUCN’s Mangroves for the Future program, is focusing on blue growth, traceability practices, marine protected area creation, and sustainable fisheries management, among others.

This conference, along with Our Ocean 2016, which witnessed inaugural commitments from Asean states, and the 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 in October in Malta and the 2018 Our Ocean conference in Indonesia.

Moving forward together on the region’s marine environmental issues will contribute to fostering cooperation and collaboration to mitigate and reduce the human impact on the oceans.

By working together and engaging in dialogue to address shared concerns, the region will be able to develop forward-thinking policies, secure commitments from both industrialized and developing nations, and adopt a multisectoral approach that integrates social, economic and environmental dimensions, to achieve the sustainable development of our ocean resources.

Sally Yozell is director, Stimson Center’s Environmental Security Program; Dr. Steen Christensen, coordinator, Mangroves for the Future, IUCN; and Brian Eyler, director, Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program.


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TAGS: fishery industry, maritime areas, Southeast Asia, United Nations
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