The Most Life-Threatening Issues Facing ASEAN’s Oceans

Southeast Asia’s precious oceans are in the midst of a crisis.

The region is home to one of the largest concentrations of marine biodiversity in the world. It houses the Coral Triangle, a marine region that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The region contains over 500 species of reef-building corals, thousands of fish species, and six (of the world’s seven) marine turtle species. Four ASEAN countries are in the top 20 fishing economies, which produce over 15% of the world’s fish in the wild.

The Coral Triangle. Photo Credit USAID CTSP/James Morgan

Unfortunately, Southeast Asia has millions of humans impacting the environment. This anthropogenic activity is threatening many of its beautiful marine and coastal places.

Pramuka Island in Indonesia. Photo Credit: Aaron Eisenberg

U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian, who spoke at the YSEALI Summit in November 2015, commented on these impending issues:

“The ocean regulates our weather and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in Southeast Asia through fishing, tourism, and more. More than three billion people around the world depend on seafood as a significant source of protein and in Southeast Asia, many people rely on seafood alone for protein.”

Here is a list of the most serious issues affecting the marine and coastal areas of Southeast Asia today.

1) People are fishing illegally, without reporting, and without regulation.

Pramuka Island in Indonesia. Photo Credit: Aaron Eisenberg

The Food and Agriculture Organization refers to this dangerous fishing as IUU fishing. IUU fishing is fishing that breaks the law, goes unreported, or lacks regulation.

It has caused over 50% of the world’s fisheries to be fully exploited. More than 60% of global marine capture production is now at risk, which is the main source of income for millions of fishermen. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region do not have adequate resources to deal with IUU fishing in their waters. Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam report frequent annual maritime disputes between its neighboring nations.

2) This illegal fishing is leading to massive overfishing.

Fishing serves an important role in Southeast Asia society, both in diet and in its economy. Because of this, over 30 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overfished. Overfishing means less food, fewer jobs, less biodiversity, and a fragile environment that could be gone forever.

Over 30% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished #YSEALIoceans

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The widespread removal of fish species in the region has significantly affected the marine ecosystem, particularly in the Coral Triangle. The Coral Triangle includes the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It is in danger of irreparable damage due to destructive fishing methods and even tourism.

Massive overfishing stands as one of the most pressing challenges affecting Southeast Asia and its oceans. 

3) Plastic waste is filling the oceans.

There are 236,000 metric tons or 51 trillion plastic particles found in the ocean. The greatest contributors to plastic pollution in the oceans are the emerging Asian economies of China and Indonesia. By 2025, six of ten ASEAN nations will be in the top 20 countries that massively mismanage their plastic waste. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam will rank among the top five polluters.

By 2025, there could be 155 million tons of plastic in the ocean #YSEALIoceans

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As countries in this region continue to develop, the amount of plastic they use will also increase. There could be as much as 155 million tons of plastic found in the ocean by 2025. Most of that increase will come from countries such as China and Vietnam, who will discard twice as many pollutants as their economies grow.

4) Industrialization and agriculture are filling the oceans with pollutants.

Pollution in Jakarta. Photo Credit: Carol Mitchell

Roughly 70% of Southeast Asia’s human population lives in coastal and marine areas. Their economies consist of intensive farming and aquaculture, rapid urbanization and industrialization, and trade. But, many of these activities are contributing to pollution in Southeast Asian waters.

Asia’s rivers have 3 times more waste than the world average #YSEALIoceans

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For example, rivers in Asia are highly polluted with domestic waste. Many of the region’s rivers contain up to three times the world average of human waste. Agricultural production has also increased in the past decade. Chemicals found in the waters caused an excess of nutrients. This has led to rapid bacterial and growth and severe damages to freshwater ecosystems.

5) Sea levels are rising.

Climate change is an inevitable reality. The earth is reacting to this global phenomenon with various environmental changes. The most obvious consequence of increasing global temperatures is rising sea levels.

Since the early 1990s, sea levels across the globe have been increasing by 0.14 inches (3.5 millimeters) per year. Studies have linked the rise in sea levels to two main factors: thermal expansion (when water heats, it expands), and the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps. Sea level rise can cause coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, and torrential surges that can devastate low-lying regions.

6) The environment itself is bleaching our coral.

As climate change warms the earth, marine ecosystems are most affected by the most modest temperature change. Specifically, the most vulnerable ocean organism to temperature change is coral.

When water is too warm, coral will react by expelling algae from its tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This process is called coral bleaching. While coral bleaching does not kill the coral, it does subject the coral to endangerment and mortality.

Areas such as Southeast Asia and the Coral Triangle are in a region that is highly vulnerable to increase in ocean temperatures. It may already be subjected to bleaching conditions today.

7) Storms are getting stronger.

A typhoon in East Asia. Photo Credit: Stuart Rankin

Higher ocean temperatures have caused stronger and more frequent tropical storms and cyclones. Stronger storms are a result of warmer surface water dissipating more readily into vapor. This allows small storms to escalate into larger, more powerful systems.

Conditions of storms are irrevocably changing. Hurricanes are intensifying significantly faster than they did 25 years ago. Another analysis shows that extreme downpours are happening 30% more often. Large storms are producing 10% more precipitation.

8) More people = more pressure on the environment.

A crowded street in Phuket. Photo Credit: Tore Bustad

Southeast Asia is a global marine diversity hotspot. However, within the last few decades, the region has been subjected to degradation due to heavy pressure from human activity. Specifically, rapid industrialization and expanding population are causing damage.

Anthropogenic impact on the coastal and marine ecosystem is critically high considering that 85% of the region’s population resides within 100 km of the coast. A report by the World Resources Institute, 95% of Southeast Asia’s coral reefs are at risk from local threats. More than 85% of reefs in the Coral Triangle are directly threatened by local human activities, surpassing the global average of 60%.

95% of Southeast Asia’s reefs are at risk @WorldResources #YSEALIoceans

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Together, ASEAN can make a difference.

In March, the YSEALI Generation: Oceans Workshop will bring 100 people to Jakarta to tackle these issues facing the region.

Southeast Asia encompasses one-third of the world’s reefs and mangroves. As such, the need to reduce the effects of marine pollution in this region is critical.

Most of the marine and coastal issues in Southeast Asia are inextricably linked. Working to resolve one will often have added benefits for the others.

These challenges are, in fact, a reality and they affect thousands if not millions of lives. Together, the ASEAN region can stem the tide of climate change and save our oceans.

See how young leaders are making an impact by following #YSEALIoceans.