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Asia's blue future: ocean conservation is the key to sustainable prosperity (I/II)

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By Alex Hong

· 10 min read

This is part one of a two-part series on ocean preservation in Asia. You can read part two here.

Asia's economic growth is closely associated with the health of the ocean. In addition to being vital for the environment, this opinion contends that a paradigm change away from resource extraction and towards ocean conservation and study is also essential for opening up enormous economic prospects. Global success stories highlight the effectiveness of sustainable ocean practices, and Asian countries may secure a prosperous blue future by cooperating. This two part commentary examines the critical role that family offices and oceanic research institutions can play in this shift.

Unlocking Asia's blue future: Ocean conservation as the cornerstone of sustainable prosperity 

The health of Asia's huge oceans is closely linked to the continent's economic miracle. However this wealth is at risk from an impending paradox. Ocean habitats are being threatened by pollution, climate change, and unsustainable fishing methods. The optimistic news? A change in perspective is feasible. Asia can unlock a future where a healthy ocean powers long-term economic growth by shifting from extraction to conservation and research. This essay examines this chance by highlighting the vital role that science plays, the financial advantages of conservation, and the significance of regional cooperation. We will explore the role of family offices and research institutes, as well as success stories, before urging cooperation in the creation of a prosperous "blue future" for Asia.

I. The Blue Paradox: How Asia can unlock economic prosperity through ocean conservation

The health of Asia's huge ocean expanses is closely linked to the continent's economic miracle. Many economic sectors depend on a healthy ocean, from the South China Sea's thriving fisheries to Southeast Asia's coral reefs, which are home to millions of tourists. Tens of millions of people are employed in the maritime, tourism, shipping, and coastal development sectors in East Asia alone, according to World Bank estimates, and the ocean economy generates over $2.5 trillion in GDP yearly in that region.

Overexploitation is a significant obstacle to this economic growth, though. Fish stocks have been driven to critically low levels by unsustainable fishing techniques. Over 34% of Asian commercial fish populations are overfished, according to a 2020 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) research. The livelihoods of coastal communities are also threatened by this depletion, which puts millions of people who depend on fish protein at risk for food security.

The state of coral reef degradation presents a similarly alarming image. These dynamic ecosystems support fish populations and are essential for tourism, which brings in an estimated $36 billion a year in Southeast Asia alone. But according to a new study that was published in Nature, pollution, climate change, and harmful fishing methods are threatening more than 70% of Asia's coral reefs.

A blue dilemma is presented by this overexploitation trend: the resource that is fueling Asia's economic expansion is being exhausted at a startling rate. The possibility of a paradigm shift is excellent news. Asia can unlock a future of sustainable economic development by shifting its priority from short-term resource exploitation to ocean protection and research.

II. Why conservation is key: A sea change for economic sustainability

Ocean overexploitation has negative effects that go far beyond short-term financial setbacks. A successful blue economy depends on a healthy ocean, and its degradation has an impact on many different sectors of the economy:

  • Fisheries: Lower catches due to depleted fish species push fishing boats farther offshore, which raises fuel expenses and eventually lowers profitability. Effective fisheries management in Southeast Asia has the potential to improve yearly fish catches by 30%, resulting in billions of more revenue, according to a 2019 study by Nature Sustainability.

  • Tourism: In many coastal places, the destruction of coral reefs undermines the basic basis of tourism. Dead and bleached reefs scare away tourists, which affects lodging establishments, eateries, and other tourism-related enterprises. According to a 2018 World Resources Institute analysis, Southeast Asia's tourism industry would lose up to $11.6 billion yearly if coral reefs are lost completely.

  • Coastal Protection: In order to prevent erosion and storm surges, healthy coral reefs serve as natural barriers along coasts. Degradation makes coastal towns more susceptible to flooding and other natural disasters by weakening this essential defence system. According to World Bank projections, saving Asian countries billions of dollars in future disaster relief expenditures could be achieved by conservation and restoration programmes targeted at conserving coral reefs.

Research is the cornerstone of effective ocean conservation. 

We can create sustainable management strategies and anticipate the effects of our activities by having a thorough understanding of the intricate ecosystems that support the health of the ocean. This is why research is so important:

  • Sustainable Fishing Practices: By gaining an understanding of fish population dynamics through research, fishing quotas that are grounded in science and guarantee natural replenishment of stocks can be established.

  • Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): By limiting fishing operations and promoting the recovery of reduced fish supplies, MPAs are best positioned in areas that are determined by research. According to studies, fish populations in well-managed MPAs can grow by up to 600% in just ten years, which has a knock-on effect on nearby fishing grounds and increases total productivity.

  • Pollution Control: Research enables more focused actions and better waste management techniques by assisting in the identification and tracking of the causes of marine pollution. This preserves the health of coastal towns that depend on clean water for recreation and tourism, in addition to protecting marine life.

Asian countries can become more proactive in their ocean management strategies by investing in ocean research. We can safeguard ocean ecosystems' long-term health and realise the full promise of the blue economy for future generations by comprehending the delicate balance that these ecosystems must maintain.

III. Success stories: From depletion to abundance

Ocean degradation doesn't have to be portrayed as an unavoidable catastrophe. Success stories from all throughout the world show how conservation and research may change the course of things, and the Asia-Pacific (APAC) area offers some particularly striking examples:

  • The Tahuna Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Indonesia: Tahuna MPA was created in 1997 and covers a thriving coral reef environment in North Sulawesi. Fish populations have significantly increased as a result of community-based enforcement and stricter fishing prohibitions within the MPA. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Marine Policy, the MPA's biomass expanded by 200% in just ten years. This gave the local inhabitants, who depend on ethical fishing methods, a steady source of income and revived the dive tourism sector by drawing more tourists eager to see the thriving coral reefs.

  • The Apo Reef Marine Natural Park in the Philippines: In response to catastrophic overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs, the Apo Reef Marine Natural Park was created in 1980. The park has enforced more stringent fishing laws and educational initiatives to support sustainable fishing practices, thanks to joint efforts between the government, non-governmental organisations, and nearby communities. According to a 2020 World Wildlife Fund research, fish populations have increased in tandem with a 15% increase in coral cover within the park during the previous ten years. In addition to protecting species, this success story offers coastal communities in the Philippines a viable economic model and draws eco-tourists who want to dive and swim in the pristine reef environment. The Apo Reef Natural Park (ARNP) won the prestigious Blue Park Award at the United Nations Ocean Conference for its marine wildlife conservation in 2022.

  • The Seychelles' "debt-for-nature swap": The Seychelles government and creditors came to a novel deal in 2016 when the government held discussions with key local stakeholders about a Marine Spatial Plan (MSP), and with Paris club creditors. The Seychelles agreed to extend its network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to encompass 30% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in return for the forgiveness of a portion of the national debt. Through eco-tourism and sustainable fishing methods, this project not only opened up new revenue streams but also safeguarded important marine ecosystems.

These instances from Asia demonstrate the financial advantages of a conservation-focused strategy. Research spending is a major factor in these achievements. In this effort, companies such as OceanX, with its state-of-the-art research missions, are leading roles. OceanX is contributing to the unravelling of the secrets of the deep ocean by utilising cutting-edge technology and working with scientists from around the globe to provide vital information for well-informed conservation policies in the Asia-Pacific area. Likewise, endeavours carried out by additional oceanographic establishments in ASEAN and elsewhere are augmenting an expanding corpus of information that is important for the sustainable administration of the ocean.

Despite the ocean's vastness, our knowledge of it is still restricted (only 5% of the world’s oceans are explored). Through funding studies centred on the distinctive marine ecosystems of Asia-Pacific, we may discover the mysteries of these seas and steer towards a future in which a robust ocean powers a flourishing blue economy in Asia.

IV. A collaborative approach for Asia: Charting a course together

Although the ocean's size may appear overwhelming, working together is the greatest way to take advantage of all the opportunities and difficulties it offers. Unlocking the full potential of ocean conservation and research requires regional cooperation among Asian states, especially those that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian states (ASEAN).

Joint research and knowledge sharing:

The ocean is a networked, intricate system. Cross-border migration of fish stocks and cross-border pollution can have an effect on one another. Together, the ASEAN countries can:

  • Coordinate research efforts: More successful conservation tactics can result from exchanging information and knowledge about problems such as migratory fish populations and the effects of climate change. Collaborative scientific expeditions have the potential to discover new ground and shed light on the distinct marine ecosystems of the area.

  • Develop standardized monitoring protocols: A more thorough picture of the health of the regional ocean is made possible by consistent data collecting throughout ASEAN countries, which also makes it easier to identify new concerns.

  • Establish knowledge-sharing platforms: Member nations can share lessons from each other's accomplishments and difficulties in ocean conservation by establishing a common repository for research findings and best practices.

Coordinated conservation efforts:

A fragmented approach to ocean conservation will ultimately prove ineffective. By working together, ASEAN nations can achieve greater impact:

  • Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing: Fish populations are reduced and sustainable fishing methods are undermined by IUU fishing. Collaborative patrols and information exchange across ASEAN countries can considerably lower the prevalence of illicit fishing, safeguarding priceless marine resources.

  • Establishing Sustainable Fishing Quotas: ASEAN countries can establish catch quotas that are based on the condition of the fish stocks in the region by working together to conduct joint scientific evaluations. This preserves the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the fishing industry and guarantees its long-term viability.

  • Creating a Network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): The states of ASEAN can establish safe havens for marine life by designating strategically placed MPAs throughout the area. This will allow depleted stocks to recover and benefit nearby fisheries. Additionally, a network of MPAs can improve coastal protection and draw money from ecotourism.

There is no denying the financial advantages of concerted conservation initiatives. Effective regional collaboration on fisheries management in Southeast Asia may yield an additional $13 billion in economic benefits annually, according to a 2020 World Bank research. This includes higher fish harvests, lower expenses related to illicit fishing, and a rise in tourism income due to robust coral reefs.

The ASEAN countries may shift from a competitive to a cooperative model by promoting a collaborative attitude towards research and conservation. This would guarantee a healthy ocean that will support sustainable economic growth for future generations.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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