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South China Sea Countries to Cooperate on Integrating Fisheries and Marine Ecosystem Management

shutterstock_248505574Bangkok November 1, 2016: Countries bordering the South China Sea have embarked on a collaborative initiative to safeguard almost two million hectares (ha) of the region’s most critical marine and coastal ecosystems for fish production, nutritional security and livelihoods.

The South China Sea is the global center of shallow water tropical marine biodiversity, however the loss of coastal habitats in this marine basin are high and increasing. Each decade, 30 percent of seagrass, 16 percent of mangrove, and 16 percent of live coral cover is lost due to unsustainable use by the more than 270 million people that live along its coast.

Small-scale inshore fishing pressure is a significant cause of the degradation and habitat loss. Declining fisheries resources has led to the adoption of unsustainable fishing methods and gear, such as the use of explosives and poisons, in order to maintain catch and increase incomes in the short-term.

shutterstock_247859812The new initiative – called the “Establishment and Operation of a Regional System of Fisheries Refugia in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand Sea” – aims to work with communities and governments to integrate habitat and biodiversity conservation considerations into fishery management and practices. The initiative is financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Ms. Isabelle van der Beck of the United Nations Environment Programme said this would benefit millions of people at the highest risk globally from the impacts of increasing rates of coastal and marine environmental degradation in an area essential to the economic and political stability of the burgeoning Southeast Asian region.

“Safeguarding habitats critical to the life cycles of important fisheries resources will not only improve and secure biodiversity but also build resiliency for those who rely on the ocean for their food and livelihood,” Ms. van der Beck said. “By improving the way fisheries and environment ministries work together and by linking fishing effort with coastal management practices this initiative will provide multiple benefits for the environment and people.”  

The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) is executing the initiative regionally in partnership with the fisheries ministries of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

shutterstock_347990045Dr. Kom Silapajarn, Secretary General of SEAFDEC, said the initiative complemented SEAFDEC’S broader initiatives to improve the management of fishing capacity and energy efficiency in fishing operations, establish vessel licensing and registration systems, promote human-rights based approaches to fisheries management, particularly in fisheries labour markets, and demonstrate sustainability in seafood supply chains.

“Countries are committed to making the most of this opportunity to test, innovate, and establish world leading practices for integrating fisheries and environmental management in order to benefit millions of small-scale fisherfolk and vulnerable fishing communities,” Dr. Silapajarn said.  “Reducing environmental stress through a network of managed coastal and marine areas will not only build the resilience of fish stocks that are important locally but also contribute significantly to global seafood production.”

Dr. Somboon Siriraksophon, Policy and Program Coordinator of SEAFDEC, said that “SEAFDEC’s linkages with ASEAN would assist in securing political support to effect transformational change in policy and legal frameworks to enable improved integration of fisheries and environmental management, and to ensure demonstrable contributions to the achievement of the global Sustainable Development Goals”.

Despite recent negative press surrounding the South China Sea, Mr. Ouk Vibol of the Fisheries Administration of Cambodia highlighted that this initiative confirms the strong and sustained commitment of the region’s countries to work together in addressing immediate, and perhaps dire, issues relating to the conservation of fish stocks and globally significant biological diversity.

“This commitment is evidenced by the recent joint signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by all countries, including China, on regional cooperation in reversing coastal and marine environmental degradation trends in the South China Sea,” Mr. Vibol said. “These achievements have benefited from almost 20 years of support from the GEF’s International Waters focal area which has provided the countries with an opportunity to interact, build mutual trust, and jointly agree a Strategic Action Programme for the South China Sea which this initiative will implement the fisheries component of”.

Mr. Christian Severin, Lead of International Waters at the GEF Secretariat, said that the governments of Southeast Asia and SEAFDEC should be commended for their foresightedness in developing and applying a highly innovative approach for the management of fish stocks of transboundary significance and the habitats upon which they depend. “The South China Sea is one of the world’s most important Large Marine Ecosystems and this initiative will result in significant global environmental benefits, both in terms of fisheries sustainability and the conservation of globally significant marine biodiversity.”

shutterstock_340896050Given the limited integration of the work of fisheries and environment ministries in Southeast Asia and many other parts of the world, the establishment and operation of the regional system of fisheries refugia provides an opportunity to learn how to integrate fisheries and coastal habitat management. It is anticipated that the experience gained in the South China Sea region through this initiative will be applied in other marine areas such as the Yellow Sea and Western Africa where over-fishing and the use of inappropriate fishing gear are significant impediments to more sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources and the use of coastal habitats.

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