The Asia-Pacific region is one of the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse regions. It is also one of its most biodiverse. Yet local marine ecosystems are nearing a tipping point as a result of various environmental stresses caused by unsustainable human practices.
In a newly released report, The Changing Sails: Accelerating Regional Actions for Sustainable Oceans in Asia and the Pacific, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) warns that collectively the unprecedented rate of marine pollution, overfishing and climate change are posing an existential threat to the region’s marine ecosystems.
The UN report, which focuses primarily on sustainable fisheries, marine plastic pollution and maritime connectivity, stresses that through large-scale conservation efforts and major recovery investments the region’s countries can still turn the tide towards improving marine sustainability and resilience.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, the Executive Secretary of ESCAP who is a professor of economics and a former State Minister for National Development Planning in Indonesia, has spoken with Sustainability Times about the new UN report’s findings and what must be done to save the region’s ocean.
What are the key findings of the report that all environmentally conscious people in the region should be aware of?
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana: Our survival and progress in Asia and the Pacific are anchored to oceans. They provide food, livelihoods, biodiversity and a sense of identity for our region. We owe it to our marine environment to protect it and use its resources sustainably.
Given the stakes, we need to take transformative action for the ocean. Data show that we have a long way to go. The estimated annual cost of achieving the United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life Below Water” globally is $174 billion. The greatest proportion must be devoted to combating marine pollution.
Data for SDG 14 are only available for two out of 10 targets, showing that our picture of the ocean is far from complete. This makes it difficult to assess progress. Existing data are uneven and non-harmonized, which makes it difficult to integrate and process data for meaningful analysis.
As oceans are truly transboundary in that water and pollution flows from one country to another, the need for international harmonization and standardization is imperative. The transboundary nature of ocean management and fragmented ocean data call for closer cooperation among countries in Asia and the Pacific.
Building upon existing partnerships can scale up action and address the extensive and heterogenous challenges facing oceans. It can strengthen the national implementation of multilateral agreements and voluntary instruments for sustainable fisheries. Closing the maritime connectivity divide and achieving sustainable shipping also call for deeper regional cooperation, particularly among the Pacific island states.
What are the gravest threats to marine ecosystems in the Asia-Pacific region?
Climate change is one of the premier threats to already fragile ocean ecosystems. The ocean has absorbed 20% to 30% of total human-induced CO2 emissions since the 1980s. Coastal communities in the small island developing states of the Pacific remain disproportionately vulnerable in their position at the frontlines of climate change.
Meanwhile, warmer air and sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, rising sea levels and greater rainfall are expected to deplete significantly coral reefs, mangrove, seagrass and intertidal habitats. This is likely to result in reductions in the productivity of coastal fisheries. Also, the abundance of tropical tuna in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean is expected to decrease under current climate projections of ocean productivity.
Increasing plastic pollution threatens to drown progress for our oceans. Nearly half of the world’s plastic is produced in Asia and the Pacific. Plastic waste in the ocean could triple by 2050 — in just 30 years — unless we take transformative action. Plastic represents a double burden for the ocean: the production process generates CO2, which ends up being absorbed by the ocean, and the final plastic products affect the ocean in the form of pollution. Environmental impacts include threats to marine biodiversity, coastal and marine ecosystems.
Which harmful human practices are especially of great concern across this vast region?
A lifestyle of plastic dependency is exacerbating ocean decline. We must fundamentally change the paradigm to phase out our reliance on single-use plastic.
We are beginning to see positive signs in the region with several countries enacting policies to curb plastic waste, but there’s an opportunity to accelerate the implementation. All stakeholders must contribute to phasing out their reliance on plastic and policies must be aligned, action-oriented and enforceable.
Ships sailing in Asia and the Pacific make up most of the world’s seaborne trade, but they do not connect all countries equally, nor do they sail sustainably. Shipping underpins the global economy, but some countries in the region display the lowest levels of maritime connectivity to major shipping routes, particularly the Pacific island states. This makes our use of the oceans not fully inclusive.
Furthermore, shipping cannot come at the expense of marine ecosystems. The region and the shipping community must navigate together toward greening the shipping industry. In our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must promote policies that contain emissions as they tend to rebound and rise to higher levels after crises.
Unsustainable fishing practices are also causing our fish stocks to dwindle at alarming rates. Coastal fishery resources are often overexploited, driven by demand from rapidly growing Asian economies. Overfishing is threatening ecological integrity and food security. The percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels has increased from 10% in 1974 to 33.1% in 2015.
Approximately one out of five fish caught globally can be attributed to illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, with higher estimates of up to one in three fish caught in the Eastern Indian, Northern Pacific and Western Central Pacific Oceans.
What can countries in the region do to improve their levels of sustainability when it comes to their use of marine resources?
To start, we must know our ocean better by harnessing data. Harmonized and widely shared data through strong national statistical systems give a complete picture of ocean health.
Connecting data across stakeholders and strengthening national statistics systems can monitor trends and devise timely responses. Stronger national statistical systems and more transparent data sharing policies are needed to produce high-quality data needed for the oceans we want.
Translating international agreements and standards into national action will accelerate tackling transboundary ocean challenges. These challenges do not rest within countries’ borders nor respond to isolated solutions. Uncoordinated actions are insufficient. Support across countries and stakeholders is fundamental to make sure that there are no loopholes in the cross-border protection of the oceans and marine resources. Turning agreements into tangible results depends on our ability to translate them into effective actions, enforceable rules and time-bound targets anchored in national regulatory frameworks.
Plastic pollution of the oceans has reached endemic proportions and is largely fueled by a few nations in Asia. What steps should these nations take to tackle the problem?
Governments must enforce policies like single-use plastic bans, as well as economic incentives and disincentives to decrease the demand of plastic products. Furthermore, enhancing waste management regulations at all stages is critical. Investing and financing new technologies can advance sustainable alternatives to plastic and improve waste management.
Building upon existing partnerships can also scale up action. Plastic pollution streamed through river basins highlights shared regional accountability for the leakage into the ocean, and a shared responsibility to protect it. This presents an opportunity to use regional cooperation strategies to face common challenges around river basins and other shared bodies of water.
Recent media reports highlight the growing concern of increased single-use plastic consumption and resulting waste since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is too early to properly assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the CO2 emissions, past experience in similar crises suggests that transport demand and associated emissions tend to rebound and then rise to higher levels if not mitigated by dedicated policy measures.
Thus, this is not a moment of reprieve. We cannot stop because climate change does not stop. It is time to build responses that are even more resilient and embedded in a sustainable reality.
What can the current pandemic and its economic effects teach us about steps that we will need to take to manage marine resources far more sustainably in future?
While the pandemic has temporarily halted industrial activities harming the environment, it also challenges us to build back better. These recovery investments have the potential to create a new reality in the post-COVID-19 pandemic embedded in sustainability and resilience for the oceans if they catalyse a shift towards sustainable practices, such as green shipping and decarbonization, and low-impact fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.
Just as the policy response to the current COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of coordinated and evidence-based policy measures, grounded in strong political will and commitment to sustainability, the Asia-Pacific response to the plight of the oceans requires the same focus on environmental sustainability of economic and social activities in the long run.
These policies need to be directed to multiple fronts and have clear goals and targets. Measures include investing in human and institutional data capacity, leveraging technology and innovation for shipping and marine debris, improving industrial fishing practices, and supporting other mechanisms that contribute to the sustainable management of oceans.
The restart of global value chains after the COVID-19 pandemic will provide an opportunity to rethink processes and to make them more environmentally sound. One of the lessons learned in this health crisis should be that the UN’s member states cannot go back to business as usual; they must seize this turning point to do things differently and better.