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Malaysia can lead efforts to protect at least 30pc of oceans By Zakri Abdul Hamid

Publish date: Mon, 22 Mar 2021, 09:14 AM

ASIA-PACIFIC nations account for half of all global marine capture fishery production, with Indonesia ranking fifth worldwide (5.1 per cent) and Malaysia 16th (1.5 per cent). This industry provides livelihoods and food for people, and feed for the region's growing aquaculture sector.

With each passing year,  fishing in Malaysia  gets  more challenging due to dwindling marine life. Regionally, the  fisheries industry is characterised by growing problems — overfishing, overcapacity, poor profitability, inadequate governance and more.

And bottom trawling, considered a more "effective" way of maximising yield, has become a seriously harmful dimension of this industry.  Fishing boats  drag huge nets along the seafloor, scooping up anything in  their  path. The yield is large but many non-targeted species, such as turtles, sharks and dolphins, are also caught up in the process.

Bottom trawling not only needlessly kills or harms these  ecologically important  marine  animals, including endangered species, it can do irreversible damage to the  ecosystems and habitats. According to the United Nations, a shocking 95 per cent of damage to seamount ecosystems worldwide is caused by deep-sea bottom trawling. 

Malaysia has taken limited steps to control trawling. For example, since 2016, Malaysia's trawling ban has been pushed from eight nautical miles (nm) to 15 nm offshore, requiring trawl fishers to convert to alternative fishing gear. 

There has also been little incentive for fishermen to satisfactorily comply with the regulations.

Bottom trawling creates one gigaton of carbon emissions every year, according to the study titled  "Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate", produced by 26 leading marine biologists, climate experts and economists.

The study is the first to show the climate impacts of trawling globally. It also provides a blueprint  to determine  which ocean areas should be protected to safeguard marine life, boost seafood production and reduce climate-changing emissions.

Only seven per cent of the ocean is under some kind of protection. The scientists argue that, by identifying strategic areas for stewardship, nations could reap "significant benefits" for climate, food and biodiversity. Protecting "strategic" ocean areas could  actually  add eight million tonnes to seafood supplies, they say.

According to lead author, Dr Enric Sala, the National Geographic Society's explorer-in-residence: "We've pioneered a new way to identify the places that, if strongly protected, will boost food production and safeguard marine life, all while reducing carbon emissions.

"It's clear that humanity and the economy will benefit from a healthier ocean. And we can realise those benefits quickly if countries work together to protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030."

The scientists identified marine areas where species and ecosystems face the greatest threats from human activities. They developed an algorithm to identify regions where safeguarding would deliver the greatest benefits across three goals: biodiversity protection, seafood production and climate mitigation.

They then mapped these to create a practical "blueprint" that governments can use  in the context of  their priorities.

The top 10 countries  producing  the most carbon emissions from bottom trawling, and therefore the most to gain, were China, Russia, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Croatia and Spain.

The analysis shows that protecting 30 per cent or more of the ocean would provide multiple benefits, and supports  the ambition of doing just that by 2030 — the target adopted recently by 50 countries to slow our destruction of the natural world.

The United Nations biodiversity conference, COP15, in Kunming, China, next October is expected to produce a global agreement for nature, building on the targets already set by some nations to protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.

As one of the world's most megadiverse regions, let Malaysia and all Asean member states not just support but help lead efforts towards this goal.

The writer is ambassador and science adviser to the Campaign for Nature and Atri Advisory chairman. He was also the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

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