Balance between Development and the Seas

The world celebrates the World Ocean Day on 8th June every year with hundreds of events, in recognition of the alarming state of marine environments across the globe. This is of great relevance for Southeast Asia, where the marine environment faces threats ranging from plastic pollution, unsustainable exploitation of marine resources to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. The Philippine government ordered in April the temporary closure of Boracay, a tourist island south of Manila, due to the environmental damage caused by unsustainable practices in the tourist industry. Boracay is not an isolated case in the region as Maya Bay of Thailand will also be shut down from June to September this year. They highlight the perennial dilemma between economic development and environmental sustainability facing developing countries like many in Southeast Asia.

The seas are of vital importance for states and people in Southeast Asia, and the region cannot afford to let the marine environment continue to degrade. People rely on the seas to provide food and jobs. Fish and seafood account for more than half of the animal protein in-take of Indonesian and Vietnamese people. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), fisheries including the primary and secondary sectors employ around two million people in Thailand. Marine economy accounts for a substantive percentage in the national gross domestic product (GDP) of Southeast Asian countries. FAO statistics show that capture fisheries and aquaculture contribute around 25 percent of Vietnam’s GDP, 18 percent of that of Myanmar. Tourism accounts for over 8 percent of the Philippines’ GDP, with coastal and marine tourism as a key component, according to the Philippine government.

The consequences of unsustainable growth in the marine economic sectors like fisheries, aquaculture, tourism and resource extraction industries are increasingly seen. A majority of fishing grounds in the region are overfished, with many facing a high risk of depletion. IUU threatens the livelihoods of local fishing communities in the long term as the US and European Union which are the primary export markets for Southeast Asian fisheries are tightening regulation on the traceability of fish imports. Unchecked expansion of tourism has caused serious environmental challenges, from discharge of untreated sewage by restaurants and hotels to mounting plastic garbage on the beaches and in the waters. In particular, tackling plastic pollution has become an urgent issue, with four regional countries identified to be among the top marine polluters in the world, namely Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Apart from polluting the marine environment, excessive plastic waste increases the concerns for food safety and public health as toxic chemicals released during plastic dissolution contaminate fish and seafood supply.

Curbing marine environmental degradation has therefore become an important agenda for national governments in Southeast Asia. While contingent measures like the two aforementioned cases reflect the recognition of the necessity and urgency to tackle coastal and marine pollution, transformation of unsustainable models of economic development as well as people’s lifestyle is necessary for ensuring effective and sustainable protection of the marine environment. Although temporary shutdown of tourist islands provides a breathing space for the seas to recover, it disrupts the livelihood of local communities relying on tourism, which may give rise to opposition to government decisions aimed at strengthening marine environmental protection. Supportive policies and frameworks are needed to mitigate the potential negative impacts of the policies on the communities and individuals concerned and support them to prepare for the changes, such as offering incentives to encourage sustainable practices in sea-based industries and providing related assistance and services like new vocational training.

In addition, changes in people’s mindsets and conducts are essential, like refraining from using single-use plastics and minimising adverse impacts on marine habitats. Efforts should be made to increase public awareness and provide guidance for environmentally sustainable behaviours, for which a multi-stakeholder approach that involves not only national and local governments but also societal actors like civil society groups and non-governmental organisations will be helpful.

Unregulated emission of pollutants, excessive exploitation of marine resources including fish stocks, and other unsustainable aspects of human development have far exceeded the carrying capacity of the seas. As a consequence, we are seeing heavy marine environmental pollution in many parts of the region, which in turn adversely affects the development and well-being of states and people. A balance therefore needs to be restored between economic growth and our seas by promoting responsible production and consumption, as is prescribed in Goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).