In Southeast Asia and the Coral Triangle, millions of people depend on a threatened marine ecosystem for food and income. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is depleting ocean resources that are critical to small-scale fisheries and regional biodiversity; pollution and climate change are making immediate action more urgent. Southeast Asia is forecast to experience a significant decline of fish stocks due to several threats including human activities (irresponsible fishing practices, IUU fishing, etc.) and climate change.
As the United Nations convenes the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, the world is grappling with how to combat the climate-induced shifts we are already experiencing: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level, intense heat waves, and severe weather. In the lead-up to COP26, government representatives, scientists, activists, and policymakers recognize that oceans are instrumental in regulating global climate and sustainable fishing is crucial to maintaining healthy oceans and stable food systems.
Protecting critical ecosystems and building resilience against the impacts of climate change will take international, collaborative effort. But, as with all complicated problems, it is not always obvious where to intervene for maximum effect.
Knowing that strengthening local and regional organizations’ capacity will constitute the bedrock of success in Southeast Asia – and that the private sector will play a critical role in that effort—USAID’s Sustainable Fish Asia (SUFIA) Local Capacity Development Activity is building the capabilities of two leading regional fisheries organizations to help them mitigate threats to marine biodiversity from IUU fishing and to improve the management of fisheries resources.
In preparation for COP26, we interviewed SUFIA partners Ms. Malinee Smithrithee, Secretary General of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), and Dr. Mohd Kushairi Mohd Rajuddin, Executive Director of the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF), to discuss what regional organizations are doing to promote healthy oceans, and what makes them optimistic that positive change is possible in the wake of climate change.
Q: First, why are healthy oceans so important, particularly in Southeast Asia?
Smithrithee: In Southeast Asia, fish is the main source of animal protein; the per capita fish consumption in the region is around 40 kilograms, about double the world average. More than 18 million tons of fish and fish products come from marine capture fisheries, contributing to food security and economic opportunities for the region’s population. It is therefore very important for us to recognize the need to ensure that ocean resources are sustainably utilized, and biodiversity and ecosystem functions are maintained.
But it doesn’t stop at any one border; transboundary and commercially exploited aquatic species, such as Indo-pacific mackerel and neritic tunas, are important resources for our region and require strengthened cooperation among different countries and stakeholders toward sustainable utilization of these resources.
Q: How did the global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting social and economic challenges affect ocean health and ocean-based livelihoods, especially in countries for which the ocean is such a big part of their culture and economy?
Kushairi: Before the global COVID pandemic, our ocean was facing several serious threats – overfishing, habitat destruction, marine litter, and poor governance. In terms of ocean use, the reduction in fishing and other ocean use activities due to COVID did allow some rehabilitation and regrowth in ocean areas where there had been destructive fishing activities and domestic pollution.
However, many economic and livelihood activities such as tourism, export and import shipping, and ocean transportation came to a halt during the pandemic. This reduction in economic activities has brought about hardship to communities that are heavily reliant on the oceans for food and income.