Asia’s fragile oceans at environmental tipping point, but COVID-19 provides ‘window of opportunity’ for recovery: UN report
BANGKOK: The temporary shutdown brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic could provide the region’s fragile oceans with a "window of opportunity" to recover, if decisive actions are taken by governments and other stakeholders for transformative action.
Throughout months of economic downturn and reduced human activity, fishing stocks have recovered, carbon emissions have been slashed and greener technologies have been promoted.
Now, there is an opportunity to “create a new reality” after the pandemic, built upon sustainability and resilience for the oceans, according to a new report released by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) on Wednesday (May 13).
“Asia and the Pacific cannot survive without the ocean. This means that all countries must pool resources and commitments to fight threats to the seas, together,” UNESCAP Executive Secretary Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana told CNA, in an exclusive interview.
“We need to take transformative action. A complete paradigm shift is required, from individuals to governments.”
Climate change, overfishing and marine pollution are presented as the greatest challenges to reversing ocean deterioration. Regional oceans are witnessing drops in pH and oxygen, sea levels are rising, temperatures are warming and key habitats like coral reefs and coastal mangroves continue to be depleted.
All of this poses adverse risks to biodiversity and also puts countless communities that rely upon oceans at potential risk.
“The effects of climate change on the ocean, such as those resulting from overfishing and natural disasters, are exacerbating the existing vulnerabilities of communities that depend on coastal fisheries,” the report noted.
“The region has taken the benefits of oceans for granted, which has contributed to their current very fragile health. This situation must be reversed.”
Asian waters are the most trafficked in the world as major thoroughfares for global cargo, while more than 60 per cent of the world’s marine capture fish production comes from Asia and the Pacific.
The report highlights the quick progress already made during this period of crisis to implement digitalisation and other smart solutions into the operations of regional ports. Asia is home to nine of the ten busiest in the world, and shipping infrastructure represents an important obstacle to reducing air pollution.
Carbon emissions from international shipping is projected by the International Monetary Fund to increase by up to 250 per cent by 2050, and while new regulations and technologies are expected to temper those rises, fast tracking moves to green shipping remains “a formidable challenge”, the UN report said.
“The pandemic presents a good opportunity to incorporate environmental agendas to the new policies that will shape future shipping and maritime connectivity.”
“While the impact of recent curbs in maritime transport stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic are still unknown, CO2 emissions from international shipping may bounce back to pre-pandemic levels and then climb to higher levels if measures to mitigate environmental impacts are not implemented.”
"INSUFFICIENT DATA ON OCEAN HEALTH"
Meantime, there are concerns about the fishing industry, notably the health and welfare of exposed coastal communities, slump in market demand, restrictions to trade and the rise of illegal activities with officials occupied by the pandemic.
Solutions and understanding are being hampered by a lack of meaningful ocean data. The report described this lack of statistical information as “dim” in the Asia Pacific region, noting that data gathering is uneven, missing, insufficient and lacking regional collaboration.
Smaller and developing countries lack the expertise to gather data sufficiently, while larger nations, where such information is more essential, often lack the institutional capacity to analyse it, the report said. As such, there are regional information gaps, particularly around ocean acidification, fishing and fisheries.
“The challenge in quantifying progress on the ocean lies in insufficient data on ocean health. The numbers, or in our case, the striking lack of them, tell us that statistics are indispensable,” Ms Alisjahbana said.
It means the region is failing to meet the data demands of the globally agreed follow-up and review mechanisms for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - an agenda described by the UN as “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” with key metrics about protections of the environment.
“Our actions for the ocean are constrained by our own limitations, which, in turn, are rooted in lack of data and limited understanding and our ability to devise effective institutional structures and policies for its conservation,” the report said.
“We know for certain that the ocean is edging closer to a tipping point, as adverse developments are taking place at an unprecedented pace.”
Improving the collection, analysis and sharing of important local and transboundary data is a key solution to sustaining the oceans of the Asia Pacific, the report concludes. In addition, it calls for enforcing international frameworks and scaling up actions for the ocean.
"WHEN THE BOATS ARE GONE, THE ANIMALS COME BACK"
The visual benefits of reduced human activity in Southeast Asia’s waters have been clear to see in recent weeks, with numerous reports of an abundance of wildlife, including dolphins, whales and dugongs, being spotted off Thailand and Malaysia.
It has coincided with Thai government plans to implement mandatory closure periods for national parks for one to two months every year to allow for natural recovery.
“Even though it will make us lose a lot of income, what we evidently get in return are the recoveries of natural resources and environments in every area nationwide, which is enormous and cannot be estimated in price,” Mr Thanya Netithammakun, the director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Thailand told local media earlier.
The move would extend to 133 national parks, following a precedent set by the ongoing closure and rehabilitation of the popular tourist site Maya Bay in southern Thailand. Large numbers of nursing blacktip reef sharks returned to the clear waters of the bay soon after tourism activities were stopped.
This shutdown period has proven to be a rare “opportunity” for nature to recover, according to prominent Thai marine scientist and lecturer at Kasetsart University, Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat. It could fast track marine habitat recoveries by years, he says.
“Frankly speaking, I am not very surprised to see how quickly the oceans have recovered. When the boats are gone, the animals come back,” he said.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has reset everything. Many situations have been set to “zero”. The outbreak has shortened the time that we need to implement the plans that we have laid out.”
For Ms Alisjahbana, seeing wildlife emerging, unimpeded by human activity, has been a “refreshing” sight. But the evidence shows that there is much more to do and many deeper challenges for the region’s oceans.
“These images represent only a small sliver of what our oceans should be. We must recover better and become even more resilient,” she said.
“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.”
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat.