Covering more than two-thirds of the planet, oceans are key to humanity’s survival and wellbeing. With their vastness supporting the world’s largest volume of life, oceans serve as food source for roughly 3.1 billion people and source of livelihood for more than 500 million people around the globe, according to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But apart from providing us food and livelihood, marine ecosystems produce most of the Earth’s oxygen, the reason they are called “lungs of the Earth”.

Healthy marine ecosystems play a central role in mitigating the impacts of climate change, as well as in climate adaptation. Oceans sequester and store carbon and absorb excess heat. Coastal ecosystems, on the other hand, act as natural buffers against sea level rise and storm surges, as well as serve as spawning grounds for marine life and fisheries.

The ASEAN region is bestowed with rich marine biological diversity, hosting a third of the world’s coastal and marine habitats that include coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries, sandy and rocky beaches, seagrass and seaweed beds, and other soft-bottom communities. With the pressure of a growing population and increasing human activities, such as overexploitation, sedimentation and pollution, these rich and globally important marine resources are under serious threat.

On World Oceans Day, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) celebrates the roles that oceans play in climate action, food security, and public health, as much as it stresses the urgency of protecting the oceans and conserving the millions of species depending on them.

Early this year, the zero draft of the CBD’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) proposed to raise the target of marine conservation to 30 per cent of global oceans by 2030. This target is expected to be finalised along with other global goals at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD, which is supposed to take place this year.

Last month, the ACB and The Pew Charitable Trusts jointly organised the virtual meeting Protecting the Oceans: UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Critical Role. It was a productive discussion among marine experts, policymakers, representatives of governments and civil society organisations, and researchers on what protecting 30 per cent of our oceans can mean for the ASEAN region.

Marine Protected Areas

There is a growing consensus among experts about the importance of protecting at least 30 per cent of the ocean by establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which is deemed necessary to achieve a broad range of environmental and economic goals. In a study on the global costs and benefits of expanding MPAs (Brander et al, 2020), the expansion and ensuring their effective management can yield positive economic impacts.

Marine reserves, where all extraction is prohibited, for example, can help conserve biodiversity by restoring the health of the oceans. These likewise enhance fisheries productivity and in turn support food security for generations. The increase in the target areas allocated to coastal and marine protected areas is ideal for the ASEAN region and can be achieved through cooperation mechanisms within ASEAN and partnerships with adjacent nations and regions, as well as other countries, which stand to benefit from bountiful fishery resources.

Aside from the establishment and expansion of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), other approaches that are being adopted by the ASEAN region to protect its oceans include integrated coastal and marine management.

Over the past four decades, there has been significant progress in integrating the management of coastal and marine areas in policy development, community engagement, livelihood support for fishers, and those in the tourism industry, and spatial planning. National efforts are also being undertaken to ensure the sustainable use of aquatic species. In Thailand, for example, public, private, and civil sectors jointly made a declaration to “cooperate in improving Long Tail Tuna fishing in the Gulf of Thailand”. The partnership also promotes and builds incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of the species.

The ACB supports the ASEAN member states (AMS) in doubling their efforts to increase regional cooperation in scaling up MPAs. Recently, in an effort supported by the ACB and the EU through the Biodiversity Conservation and Management of Protected Areas in ASEAN (BCAMP) project, Malaysia and Thailand have stepped up their collaboration in improving the management of a terrestrial cross-border area of Royal Belum State Park in Perak, Malaysia, and Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary, Bang Lang National Park, and Halasah Non-Hunting Area in Southern Thailand. Similar pursuits in marine protected areas in the region are also underway.

The centre is also ready to work at the regional level in helping address primary issues besetting our seas, adversely affecting marine biodiversity. An example of these issues is the high and rapidly increasing levels of marine debris. Last year, the AMS adopted the declaration on Combating Marine Debris in Bangkok, Thailand, which resolved for greater cooperation and collective efforts in addressing waste pollution in our oceans.

Hence, the AMS and the ACB have been ardent in engaging the public in its various communication campaigns in the hope that these will redound to transformative actions towards marine conservation.

Let us all work harder so that generations after generations may enjoy the benefits of healthy oceans.

Theresa Mundita S Lim is the executive director of ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity