A sea of plastic waste on Kedonganan Beach, Badung, Bali. (Antara Photo/Wira Suryantala)

Healthy Oceans: Keeping Asia and The Pacific Afloat

BY :ARMIDA SALSIAH ALISJAHBANA

MAY 15, 2020

Memories of idyllic beaches and vibrant waves may seem far away while we remain at home. To the people in the Asia Pacific, our namesake bears a nod to the Pacific Ocean, which provides food, livelihoods, and a sense of identity, especially for coastal communities in the Pacific island States.

Sadly, escalating strains on the marine environment are threatening to drown progress and our way of life.

In less than a century, climate change and unsustainable resource management have degraded ecosystems and diminished biodiversity.

Levels of overfishing have exponentially increased, leaving fish stocks and food systems vulnerable. Marine plastic pollution coursing through the region's rivers have contributed to most of the debris flooding the ocean.

This year's research from Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap), "Changing Sails: Accelerating Regional Actions for Sustainable Oceans in Asia and the Pacific", shows that our picture of the ocean is remarkably shallow. 

The challenge in tracking the progress on our ocean lies in insufficient oceanic data on health and resources management. Without data, we are swimming in the dark.

Existing oceanic data are available for only two out of ten targets for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life Below Water, showing that our picture of the ocean is far from complete.

Due to limitations in methodology and national statistical systems, uneven information gaps have persisted across countries.

Insufficient or missing data creates significant information gaps about ocean acidification, fisheries, research efforts, economic benefits for small island developing states, and least developed countries.

Defeating Covid-19 has been a numbers game and we need a similar commitment to data for the state of our shores. 

While there is much we cannot see, images of plastic pollution have become commonplace.

Asia and the Pacific produce nearly half of global plastic by volume. Beating this challenge will hinge upon effective national policies and re-thinking production cycles.

Strong national statistical systems will support countries to monitor trends, devise timely responses, and clear blind spots impeding action.

Close cooperation among countries in the region is also required for transboundary ocean management and linking ocean data. Through the Ocean Accounts Partnership, Escap is working with countries to harmonize ocean data and provide a space for regular dialogue.

Generating complete data on fish stocks, fighting illicit fishing activity, and conserving marine areas must remain a priority. The environmental decline is also affecting dwindling fish stocks. 

Our region's position as the world's largest producer of fish has come at the cost of overexploitation. The percentage of stocks fished at unsustainable levels has increased threefold from 10 percent in 1974 to 33 percent in 2015.

We must also work with the shipping community to navigate toward green shipping. As an ocean-based industry, shipping directly affects the health of the marine ecosystem. Enforcing sustainable shipping policies is essential to mitigate maritime pollution.

Unequal shipping connectivity also remains as a challenge in the region. While the most connected shipping economies are in Asia, the small island developing states of the Pacific experience much lower levels of connectivity, leaving them relatively isolated from the global economy.

Closing the maritime connectivity gap must be placed at the center of regional transport cooperation efforts.

Countries also need to re-think production cycles to overcome plastic pollution. Keeping the ocean plastic-free will depend on policies that promote a circular economy approach. This strategy minimizes resource use and keeps them in use for as long as possible.

That will require economic incentives and disincentives, coupled with fundamental lifestyle changes.  Fortunately, several countries in the region have introduced successful single-use plastic bans.

Escap's Closing the Loop project is reducing the environmental impact of cities in Asean by addressing plastic waste pollution and leakages into the marine environment.

The magnitude of our ocean and its challenges represent how extensive and collaborative our solutions must be. Hence, translating international agreements and standards into national action is also crucial. We must fully equip countries and all ocean custodians to localize global agreements into tangible results.

Escap is working with member states to implement the International Maritime Organization (IMO) requirements on emissions reduction and environmental standards.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily reduced emissions and pollution on the ocean, this should not be a moment of reprieve. Instead, it is time to take transformative action for the ocean.

In the post-pandemic era, we must use the critical years ahead to steer our collective fleets toward sustainable oceans. With our shared resources and commitment, I am confident we can sail in the right direction.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nation's under-secretary-general and executive secretary of Escap.

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