The South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand Large Marine Ecosystems are two of the richest shallow water marine biodiversity hotspots in the world. These LMEs contain over 300 hard coral species, 3365 fish species, 45 mangrove species, and nearly two million hectares of mangrove forest — 12% of the world’s total (GEF, 2010). Nearly one-third of the approximately 350 million inhabitants living in the region are dependent on fisheries or marine-related services. Fishermen in the LMEs harvest nearly five million tons of fish annually, equivalent toapprox.10% of the world’s annual fish catch (Khemakorn, 2006). The People’s Republic of China is the largest marine aquaculture producer, accounting for 62% of global production (FAO, 2010). Much of the region’s coastal environment has been severely degraded or lost due to development triggered by rapidly growing regional populations and economies. For example, from 1980 to 2005, the area experienced a 28% reduction in mangrove cover, mostly attributable to harvesting mangroves for timber or converting them to rice farms (FAO, 2007). Fisheries in the area are characterized by high levels of small-scale fishing and unsustainable illegal fishing practices (poison and dynamite). Finally, increasing fishing pressure, coupled with a continued decline in the expanse and quality of coastal habitats critical to the life-cycle of many marine species, have been growing causes of concern.
In 2002, the GEF through UNEP launched the fiveyear Reversing Environmental Degradation Trends in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand Project (referred to as the South China Seas, or SCS Project). The Project was implemented in the seven countries sharing the LMEs: Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Viet Nam. This effort addressed priority environmental concerns through the development and testing of a suite of management approaches and tools, including ICM, fisheries refugias, habitat rehabilitation, and wastewater treatment systems.
An important outcome of the SCS Project has been the development of a fisheries refugia system. This innovative approach integrates fisheries with habitat management and offers an alternative to no-take reserves (NTRs), a type of marine protected area that is closed to all fishing activities. Fisheries refugia are a system of geographically defined marine or coastal areas, such as mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and wetlands, in which specific management measures protect species during critical stages of their lifecycle. This system focuses on sustainable use of fisheries resources, and can involve the application of management measures such as seasonal closures and prohibition of specific fishing methods. Once sites are identified and a management strategy developed, the implementation of a refugia system can be done independently if there is coordinated planning, sharing of information, and commitment. Under the SCS Project, Thailand has successfully established a fisheries refugia system through a 50,000 km2 network of critical habitats along the western coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Viet Nam has included a 10,000 hectare seagrass area on the east coast of Phu Quoc. Over a five-year period, coral cover was found to have increased, or at least been maintained, within refugia at five sites. Complementary efforts included the development of ecotourism and fisheries-related alternative livelihoods, which reduced fishing pressure and provided incentives to local fishers to protect reefs.
Seagrass beds serve as an important spawning and nursery grounds for fish and other marine organisms. However, many of the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand LME’s original seagrass beds have either been lost or degraded due to dredging, trawling, water pollution, and fish farming. The SCS Project supported efforts among local stakeholders to raise awareness of the importance of seagrass conservation. This encouraged local authorities and community members to establish and enforce protective regulations, e.g., patrolling, tracking and warning violators. The SCS Project contributed to the establishment of a transboundary management agreement for seagrass beds along the border of Cambodia and Viet Nam and increased seagrass coverage in East Bintan, Indonesia, from 2586 hectares in 2006 to 2595 hectares in 2009. A small but important increase, directly linkable to the increase in fish density in the seagrass area.
Mangroves serve as an important nursery habitat for many marine species. The SCS Project supported a number of mangrove rehabilitation and protection efforts focused on encouraging local participation in management, and promotion of eco-friendly activities. In Fangchenggang, China, mangrove cover increased by 150 hectares from 2003 to 2011 (70% of the increase was due to natural regeneration from better protection, and 30% was a result of replanting). In Chonburi, Thailand, mangrove cover increased by 4 hectares from 1999-2009, even though a large portion of the replanted area had died off. The successful rehabilitation of mangroves increased mangrove-related ecotourism and fisheries productivity in these ecosystems, giving incentive to communities to strengthen mangrove protection.
The SCS Project supported a number of initiatives to generate alternative livelihoods for communities. These initiatives provided incentives to community members to better protect their reefs and mangroves, and also helped foster positive attitudes about conservation. In one initiative, a community began using coconut shells for charcoal, a more sustainable alternative to mangrove timber. Another initiative created income-generating opportunities in tourism for residents through becoming guides and homestay hosts. Awareness-raising campaigns were also a crucial component of the SCS Project. In Viet Nam, increased awareness regarding the importance of coastal conservation and the effects of unsustainable fishing activities resulted in a reduction in destructive fishing methods.
Another key factor in the overall success of the SCS Project was a process of bringing together the countries to examine the issues and problems for ocean governance through a Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis and then development of a Strategic Action Programme paving a way forward. This TDA-SAP process is to be followed up by a SAP implementation project, sustaining, continuing, and up-scaling the regional, national, and local achievements and accomplishments by addressing the commonly agreed priorities of the Strategic Action Programme.
Overall, the SCS Project fostered the establishment of mechanisms for national and regional coordination, and led to the development of a regional program of action to support national plans aimed at reversing the degradation and loss of habitats. As a result, there has been increased participation from local communities and improved compliance with environmental regulations. Importantly, there is a more general recognition that natural marine resources are a commodity worth preserving and that there is a need to adopt more eco-friendly practices. The project succeeded in reducing a number of environmental stresses to the LME, and has helped foster cooperative relationships, improve livelihoods, and diversify sources of income.
This story was orginally published in "From Coast to Coast: 20 Years of Transboundary Management of our Shared Oceans" in 2015.