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Report: COVID-19 pandemic may give Asia-Pacific’s oceans a chance to recover

The well-being of oceans in the Asia-Pacific region are edging closer to a tipping point due to the unprecedented pace of marine pollution, overfishing and climate change in recent years. However, a new report released today by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) suggests that the temporary shutdown of activities as well as reduced human mobility and resource demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic may provide marine environments the much-needed breathing space for them to recover.
The report entitled Changing Sails: Accelerating Regional Actions for Sustainable Oceans in Asia and the Pacific also suggests that large-scale recovery investments being put in place by governments have the potential to turn the tide towards improving marine sustainability and resilience in the post-COVID 19 world if they catalyse a shift towards sustainable practices such as green shipping and decarbonization, and low-impact fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.
“Promoting the health and sustainability of oceans is inextricably linked with the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific. During these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to take advantage of the window of opportunity offered by reduced emissions and energy demand to protect the marine environment,” shared United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana at the report launch today.
“Many of the challenges in the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and marine resources lie in the transboundary and highly complex nature of ocean management, coupled with the fragmented understanding of the interaction between oceans and human activities,” she added.
Oceans are extremely valuable for Asia and the Pacific, a region that uses them intensely. For example, fisheries provide food and income to more than 200 million people in the region, with 34 million engaged in commercial fishing. More than 80% of international trade is transported by shipping with two thirds of these operations concentrated in Asia. However, countries in the Asia-Pacific are among the world’s top plastic polluters. Eight of the ten rivers responsible for up to 95% of plastic waste leaked globally into oceans are in Asia.
The study dives into three key areas – maritime connectivity, sustainable fisheries and marine plastic pollution – around which the region can rally to take urgent action to halt and reverse the declining health of oceans and marine ecosystems.
A startling lack of data and statistics on oceans in the region is revealed in the report, with data only available for two of the 10 targets for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life Below Water. At the same time, the data gaps are uneven, often being the largest in countries where they are needed the most. To transform actions for the oceans, the report urges for more transparent sharing of ocean data and stronger investments in national statistical systems to resolve existing blind spots.
ESCAP also underscores the need for countries in the region to take advantage of scientific and technological advances, and to consistently enforce international conventions, norms and standards on the protection and sustainable use of the oceans such as those by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
The UN body further highlights the importance of strengthening regional cooperation between countries at different stages of development to live up to this shared responsibility. It points to existing platforms such as the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean to rally multi-stakeholder partnerships. Regional dialogue is also essential to support the connectivity and data needs of Pacific small island developing states, which currently remain isolated from beneficial global and regional maritime trade.
The report is released in line with the theme of the 76th Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, which will be held on 21st May. For the first time in ESCAP’s history, the Commission session will take place fully online with the participation of Ministers, senior government officials and various stakeholders from 53 member States and 9 associate members.
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