Tarutao National Park, Satun, Thailand (Photo by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity)

Oceans are our life!

The global community celebrates two important related events during the month of June – the International Day for the Fight against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing on 5 June, and the World Oceans Day on 8 June. On these occasions, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity highlights the importance of biodiversity in our oceans and seas. 

The UN calls oceans “lungs of the earth”, as they generate most of the oxygen we breathe. Oceans produce oxygen through marine plants such as phytoplankton, kelp, and algal planktons. These plants produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis.

The world’s oceans provide food and clean water. Containing 97 percent of the world’s water, oceans are home to millions of marine species that provide humans with at least a sixth of the animal protein they eat, as well as the ingredients for our medicines.

Oceans cover 70 percent of the world’s surface, and transport heat from the equator to the poles, regulating our climate and weather patterns. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce climate change impacts.

Aside from these life-supporting products and services, oceans provide wondrous recreational areas and limitless inspiration to millions of people. Clearly, oceans play an essential role for life on earth.

In the ASEAN region, resources from the oceans not only provide life sustaining and economic benefits for some 650 million people but also contribute to global sustainable development. The 10 ASEAN Member States – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam – house a third of the world’s coral reefs, mangrove, and seagrass areas. 

The ASEAN region is endowed with extensive coastlines, and has a total of 173,000 kilometers of shorelines. Indonesia and the Philippines are recognised as among those having the most coral reef areas in the world. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are three of the six countries bordering the Coral Triangle, which is home to 75 percent of the world’s reef-building corals.

Overall, the ASEAN region hosts a third of the world’s coastal and marine habitats, which include coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries, sandy and rocky beaches, seagrass and seaweed beds, and other soft bottom communities.  These habitats and their resident species provide various forms of ecosystem services, such as breeding, nursing, and feeding grounds for marine plants and animals, as well as resources important to livelihoods of coastal communities. 

Carbon sequestration and storage in mangrove tree trunks and roots, seagrass, seaweeds, and other algae; climate regulation; sediment protection; and shoreline retention to buffer coastal areas from storm surges are regulatory ecosystem services that we get from marine and coastal biodiversity and ecosystems. 

According to the ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook 2, a publication of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, coastal habitats maintain nutrient cycles and provide media for the exchange of genetic materials. These habitats provide cultural services in the form of recreation and tourism, education, research, and places of worship.

There are various estimates of the monetary value of coastal habitats in the region. Coral reefs generate and may constitute a significant percentage of national economies where such habitats occur in large scale, and where industries such as coral reef-related tourism, fisheries, live fish aquarium, and shell craft industries thrive. Coral reef-related tourism relies on water and habitat quality, the type and quality of services offered, and accessibility factors. The ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook 2 reported that potential annual economic value of coral reefs in the ASEAN region arising from fisheries, shoreline protection, tourism, recreation, and aesthetic values is estimated at USD 12.7 billion.

But behind this richness are threats. The integrity of the world’s oceans is threatened by overfishing, the use of destructive fishing practices, pollution, siltation, warming, coral bleaching, and other impacts from climate change. 

According to the ASEAN’s Population Reference Bureau, close to 500 million people will be living in or near coastal and marine areas in the ASEAN region by 2050.  Indonesia and the Philippines were identified by the Reefs at Risk Revisited report as two countries that have tens of millions of coastal people living within 30 kilometers of reefs. Considering that the ASEAN is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, its nearshore ecosystems have become more vulnerable to habitat change from overexploitation, sedimentation, pollution, coastal development, ineffective governance, and collateral damage from coastal tourism and climate change.

Human activities present the biggest threat to oceans as more than 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land-based activities and wastes, specifically plastics. Decades of overuse and a surge in single-use plastics has led to a global environmental catastrophe. The UN has reported that 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the oceans every year, killing 100,000 marine animals annually, among other damages. While most plastics are expected to remain intact for decades or centuries after use, those that do erode end up as micro-plastics, consumed by fish and other marine wildlife, quickly making their way into the global food chain.

In a presentation during the celebration of the International Day for Biodiversity held in Bangkok, Thailand on 2 May 2019, Dr. Suchana Chavanich, a faculty member of the Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, said that 39 percent of plastic wastes go to open ocean waters; 33.7 settle in coastline and sea floor; 26.8 remain in coastal ocean waters; and 0.5 percent float on the waters. Dr. Chavanich reported that a study conducted by the Chulalongkorn University found microplastics in 93 percent of bottled water.

Another threat to marine life is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – the focus of the 5 June global observance. According to a European Union report, the estimated global value of IUU fishing is around USD 11 to USD 22 billion per year. Between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish are caught illegally a year, accounting for at least 15 percent of the world’s catches. IUU unsustainably affects the world’s fish stocks.

The 10 ASEAN Member States, supported by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, recognise that protecting the ASEAN region’s oceans has a global significance, as benefits go beyond the borders of Southeast Asia. Thus, they are working together to ensure that the region’s marine and coastal biodiversity and ecosystems are conserved, protected and sustainably used.

During the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris held on 5 March 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand, the ministers responsible for natural resources, environment and marine affairs, through the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Region, affirmed the ASEAN’s commitment to conserve the region’s marine environment and strengthen regional cooperation in addressing marine debris issues. The Ministers extended their full support to advance partnerships for sustainability as well as to promote synergy within the framework of ASEAN partnership, in particular to combat marine debris in the ASEAN region.

In closing, I would like to emphasise that saving our oceans is not the responsibility only of our governments and marine scientists. Each one of us can do our share to protect our rich marine heritage.

The ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity recommends the following actions:

·        Learn about the wealth of diverse and beautiful ocean creatures and habitats, how our daily actions affect them, and how we are all interconnected.

·        Mind your carbon footprint and reduce energy use.

·        Buy sustainably sourced seafoods.

·        Properly dispose wastes, especially hazardous materials.

·        Use fewer plastics or reusable ones and dispose them properly.

·        Join coastal clean-up activities.

·        Plant native species of mangrove trees and protect their natural stands.

·        Report illegal activities that are harmful to marine life.

·        Support organisations working to protect our oceans.

·        Influence change in your homes, schools and communities.

By working together, we can protect our shared oceans. Let us keep in mind that oceans are our life! (Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim/ACB)

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