‘World’s most threatened marine ecosystems’: Saving Asean’s marine ecoregion

Terns stop over the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, one of the internationally important wetlands in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway for migratory birds.

“Sadly, the Asean region’s marine ecosystem is one of the world’s most threatened in terms of coastal marine resources degradation. This has a profound impact on the planet and its inhabitants, inevitably threatening food security, local tourism, and global warming mitigation,” said Ambassador Noel Servigon, the Permanent Representative of the Philippines to Asean.

Recognized as the heart of the planet’s marine biodiversity, the Coral Triangle’s most fertile part is shared by the Philippines with its Asean neighbors.

The webinar on marine biodiversity conservation in Asean is led by (top from left) ACB’s Dr. Mary Kristerie A. Baleva and Clarissa Arida; and Desiree Maaño of DENR-BMB; (second row, from left) Antoinette Taus, founder of Communities Organized for Resource Allocation and webinar emcee; Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim, ACB executive director; and Ambassador Noel Servigon.

Servigon gave the statement at the recent webinar, “Marine Biodiversity Conservation in Asean: Current State and Ways Forward.”

Co-organized by the Office of the Permanent Representative of the Philippines to Asean and the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), the online event was held in line with the Philippines’s Presidential Proclamation 316, declaring September as Maritime and Archipelagic Nation Awareness Month (Mana Mo, or your inheritance).

It highlighted Asean’s rich and diverse marine resources, which serve as a unifying force that compels stronger regional cooperation among Asean member states.

ACB Executive Director Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim noted that the region’s marine ecosystems not only provide for the Asean citizen’s socio-economic well-being and embody the ecological connectivity within and beyond the Asean, but also protect against the devastating impacts of climate change.

“The seas connecting Asean encourage the member-states to unite and forge stronger linkages in addressing the climate crisis and the pandemic we are currently in,” Lim said.

“Thus, the protection and sustainable management of our biodiversity, our common natural heritage, serve as our compass as we set sail towards recovery,” she added.

Lim underscored that “healthy mangroves, tidal flats, seagrass beds and coral reefs act as natural barriers against strong winds and storm surges and contribute to our resilience to rising temperatures.”

Important network of MPAs

Asean boasts of a network of marine protected areas (MPAs), said Clarissa Arida, ACB director for Programme Development and Implementation.

Arida said during the webinar that the Asean region harbors one of the world richest marine biodiversity covering about 50 percent of the Earth’s water surface and one-third of the total surface of the world.

It has a coastline of 173,000 km and covers one-third of the world’s coastal and marine habitat. It also accounts for 17 percent of the world’s fish production.

The region’s coastal and marine habitats include coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and seaweed beds, estuaries, sandy and rocky beaches, mudflats and other soft bottom habitats, she said.

Arida pointed out that by 2050 it is estimated that close to 500 million people will live in coastal and marine areas of the Asean region.

“With Asean’s growing economies despite the current Covid-19 pandemic, the near-shore ecosystems have become more vulnerable to habitat change, overexploitation of resources, pollution and climate change,” she said.

Marine debris pollution

“With pollution from land resources, the ecosystem services expected from coastal and marine protected area will not be able to sustain our fisheries,” Arida warned.

Coastal and marine habitats provide breeding and feeding grounds for marine plants and animals. It also provides food and resources important to the livelihood of coastal communities.

Such ecosystem services can be adversely affected by marine debris pollution unless Asean member-states work together to address such threat.

Other services that may be affected include carbon sequestration, climate regulation, sediment protection, even maintaining nutrient cycles as well as cultural services, and areas for education, research and places of worship.

Asean Heritage Parks

Protected areas have proven to be an effective tool in the fight to sustain biodiversity and significantly contribute to human well-being and sustainable development.

Asean Heritage Parks (AHPs) is one of the flagship programs to address the threats to biodiversity, and protect coastal and marine habitats and resources.

“The AHP program recognizes the uniqueness, diversity, and outstanding values of our national parks in the region,” Arida said.

There are currently 50 AHPs, nine of them are marine, eight wetland and 33 terrestrial.

The nine marine AHPs are considered to be crucial in protecting and conserving unique migratory species, particularly migratory water birds.

They are the Kepulauan National Park, Wakatobi National Park, Lampi Marine National Park, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Ao Phang-Nga Mu Ko Surin Mu Ko Similan National Park, Hat Chao Mai National Park, and Mu Ko Libong Non-Hunting Area Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park, Tarutao National Park, and Baitu Long National Park.

Located in the Andaman Sea, the Hat Chao Mai National Park in Thailand is deemed to be one of the world’s sites with high biodiversity. It is the first major dugong conservation zone in Thailand.

Meanwhile, described as the last intact seabird habitat is the Philippines’s Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Also a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Park, it boasts of diverse coral species.

It is also home to more than 30,000 breeding seabirds and has the highest density of white-tip reef sharks in the world.

Shark survey conducted between June 27 to July 2, where a total of 18 underwater visual surveys were completed, saw exciting record-breaking events like a total of 534 shark and 18 ray encounters.

Meanwhile, unique but threatened are the mangrove species in Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar like kazano, madama, thame, thayaw, kambala and thinbaring, Arida said.

Also, unique animal species like wild dog, fishing cat, smooth-coated otter, sambar deer, ayeyarwady dolphin, spoon-billed sandpiper and brackish water crocodile can be found in this marine AHP.

Arida said there are also hog deer, small Indian civet, wild cats, tortoise and rock python in the area.

Threats to marine ecoregions

Marine ecoregions, or large marine ecosystems and open oceans, are mostly transboundary areas and these systems are often interlinked by a complex web of environmental, political, economic and security issues, such as that of Asean, Arida said.

Threats to these shared resources, she said, have cumulative and synergistic environmental impacts and underscore the need for integrated and multisectoral management approaches, such as in addressing marine debris pollution, an example of a transboundary issue that requires integrated regional cooperation.

As such, protecting and conserving Asean’s marine ecosystem, particularly the marine AHPs, are of utmost importance and needs collaborative effort of Asean member-states.

Asean flyway network

One initiative in the Asean is the flyway network, which aims to protect and conserve migratory waterbirds and their habitats.

“Asean lies at the heart of the Asian-Australasian Flyway Network and migratory waterbirds use wetlands in this network,” Arida said.

The ACB director said one of nine major migratory waterbird flyways around the globe, the Asian-Australasian Flyway Network is home to over 50 million migratory waterbirds.

The wetlands along the network is crucial for the survival of these long-distance flyers as they journey from the northern Arctic breeding grounds of Russia to the nonbreeding grounds of Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

A shared responsibility

Desiree Maaño, Coastal and Marine Ecosystems Management Section chief of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-BMB), presented at the webinar Asean’s approaches and strategies in building constituencies to sustain conservation efforts.

According to Maaño, the common threats to marine biodiversity are illegal wildlife trade as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by locals.

“We have shared fish stock, common concerns on maritime trade and security, and even threats. Thus, we also have a shared responsibility among the member-states to protect our oceans,” she explained.


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