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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.

Q:  What innovative technologies or new ideas excite you and make you optimistic for the future of ocean health in Asia in the short and long term? 

Smithrithee: During the past few years, several new measures have been promoted to ensure that fish and fishery products are harvested in a sustainable manner. Some of the more exciting initiatives include the Port State Measures Agreement, which has recently been put into practice and has already led to significant progress in preventing the entry of IUU fish and fishery products into the supply chain. Additionally, several Southeast Asian countries have established catch traceability systems to ensure that their fish and fishery products are derived from sustainable fishing practices.

I’m also excited by the prospect of adopting new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to enable countries to support the existing Monitoring, Control and Surveillance measures in monitoring the fishing activities and combating IUU fishing. The use of AI for species identification could also be explored to support activities on monitoring and assessment of coastal and marine fish stocks, and to supplement conventional stock assessment methodologies.

Kushairi: Some exciting initiatives happening in Asia are the efforts to strengthen sustainable aquaculture and eco-tourism. If these are done right and properly, diversified local economies can help reduce pressure on wild fisheries and would benefit our ocean and coastal communities as well as growing coastal community prosperity.

We are also interested in the continuous efforts to come up with plastic alternatives and bioplastic products to reduce ocean plastic pollution and improve the health of the people. What is important is that we work together; collaborative and collective action is needed to plan and implement science-based initiatives that will sustain the health of our oceans and minimize the impact of climate change.

Q:  Could you highlight a few of your organization’s previous sustainable fishing and climate resilience achievements and future plans?

Smithrithee:  SEAFDEC has strengthened the cooperation among Southeast Asian countries to sustainably utilize fishery resources—which also encourages the protection and restoration of ecosystems to mitigate climate change. To this end, we have and will, with support from USAID SUFIA LCD, continue to:

  • Improve data collection and obtain a better understanding of the status of the fishery resources as the basis for sustainable utilization, especially that of transboundary fishery resources
  • Enhance the capacity of SEAFDEC and the Member Countries in undertaking research on marine plastics and marine litters, as well as on mitigating of impacts from abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear 
  • Support existing initiatives in combating IUU fishing, such as the ASEAN Catch Documentation Scheme, Regional Fishing Vessels Record
  • Improve the management of small-scale fisheries and enhance the participation of local communities in managing the fishery resources
  • Promote gender integration in development projects undertaken by SEAFDEC and empower women to support the livelihoods of their households and communities

Kushairi: CTI-CFF has worked for years to ensure that the ocean remains a healthy and sustainable source for regional livelihoods and nutrition. CTI-CFF works on multiple initiatives such as capacity-building efforts for our member countries in the areas of climate change, marine protected areas, fisheries management, and sustainable development of seascapes.

The implementation of the Guide for Vulnerability Assessment and Local Early Action Planning and the CTI-CFF Region-wide Early Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation at the national and local levels have contributed to the efficient management of our coastal and marine resources.

Through its Women Leaders Forum, CTI-CFF has also empowered more than 300 women through leadership development and an intergenerational mentoring program to become drivers of change in protecting our oceans.

CTI-CFF will incorporate Gender Equality and Social Inclusion into our normal work processes and to ensure we promote fair labor practices. CTI-CFF will also continue exploring how to reduce marine plastic so that we can have healthier, safer, and clearer oceans and coastal communities.

CTI-CFF is geared towards further aligning its efforts and fulfilling international obligations. Finally, our efforts to set up a CTI-CFF Regional Conservation Trust Fund will immensely contribute to ensuring our organization’s sustainability so we can continue our various activities to improve the health of our oceans far into the future.

Learn more about implementing the USAID SUFIA LCD Activity

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Disclaimer: This piece was written by Arlene Nietes Satapornvanit (Project Manager), Patchareeboon (Mam) Sakulpitakphon (Private Sector Engagement Specialist ), and Mark Granius (Governance Specialist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.