Reefs at risk in Southeast Asia

By World Resources Institute

Results from the most detailed analysis of threats to Southeast Asia’s coral reefs, which was released in February 2002 indicate that the threats to the world’s most important and most extensive coral reef systems are higher than originally estimated in 1998.

Using sophisticated computer software and a new index of threats, the scientists estimate that 88 percent of Southeast Asia’s reefs are severely threatened by human activities. The main threats are overfishing, destructive fishing, and sedimentation and pollution from land-based sources.

“Coral reefs are the cornerstone of the economic and social fabric of Southeast Asia, yet they are the most threatened reefs in the world,” said Lauretta Burke, a co-author Reefs at Risk in Southeast Asia (RRSEA), published by the World Resources Institute (WRI). “Although our report indicates that the picture is pretty grim, it will provide resource managers and government officials with the kind of information that they need to effectively manage their coral reefs.”

The report is part of a unique collaboration between 35 scientists from across the region, the US, Australia and the UK, who compiled a vast database on the region’s coral reefs. This detailed regional study grew out of a 1998 study conducted by WRI of the world’s coral reefs.

Southeast Asia is considered the global epicenter of marine diversity. Its nearly 100,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, or 34 percent of the world’s total, house over 600 of the 800 reef-building coral species in the world. It is not unusual to find a greater variety of species around a single island in this region than can be found on all the coral reefs in the Caribbean.

The report estimates that the sustainable value of Southeast Asia’s coral reef fisheries is US$2.4 billion annually. If ecosystem services like tourism and shoreline protection are included, the figure is greater. The total economic value for Indonesia, with the largest coral reef systems in the region, is estimated at US$1.6 billion annually. The Philippines comes second with an annual estimated value of US$1.1 billion.

According to the report, over 90 percent of the coral reefs in Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and the Spratly Islands are threatened. Over 85 percent of the reefs of Malaysia and Indonesia are threatened. Indonesia and the Philippines – among the world’s largest archipelagos – hold 77 percent of the region’s coral reefs and nearly 80 percent of all the threatened reefs.

The authors based their conclusions on a set of new standardized indicators that take into account such threats as coastal development, overfishing, destructive fishing, marine pollution, and sedimentation and pollution from inland activities. These indicators form the Reefs at Risk Threat Index, which identifies areas most at risk and highlights the linkages between human activities and reef condition.

The report concludes that overfishing is the most pervasive threat to coral reefs in Southeast Asia. About 64 percent of Southeast Asia’s reefs are threatened by overfishing, with Cambodia, Japan and the Philippines exceeding 70 percent. “If fishing in Southeast Asia is not reduced to more sustainable levels, both coral reefs and food security will be further imperiled,” said Mark Spalding, a co-author of the report.

Destructive fishing practices, like the use of poison and dynamites, threaten an estimated 56 percent of the region’s coral reefs. The threat is particularly high in the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and in Vietnam. Over two-thirds of the reefs in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan, as well as over 50 percent of those in Indonesia are threatened by destructive fishing. In addition, sedimentation and pollution associated with coastal development and changes in land use place 37 percent of the region’s reefs at risk.

The report recommends the following:

1. Expand the protected areas network for coral reefs. Currently, only 8 percent of the region’s reefs are in marine protected areas.

2. Reduce overfishing through improved management and the development of alternative livelihoods for fishers. Decreased fishing effort would result in higher catches and incomes for those who still choose to fish.

3. Regulate the international trade in live reef organisms. The total value of the trade in live reef fish exceeds US$1 billion per year, with Southeast Asia supplying up to 85 percent of the fish in the aquarium trade and nearly all of the live reef food fish.

4. Improve the management of existing marine protected areas, which will require political and financial commitments from government, private organizations, and the tourism industry.

“Effective management is key to maintaining coastal resources, but it is inadequate across much of Southeast Asia,” said Elizabeth Selig, co-author of the report. There are 646 marine protected areas in the region, but of the 332 whose management status could be determined, only 14 percent were rated as effectively managed. The report finds that although management requires additional investments, the cost of inaction is even higher. Over a 20-year period, current levels of blast fishing, overfishing, and sedimentation could cost Indonesia and the Philippines more than US$ 2.6 billion and US$ 2.5 billion, respectively.

Reefs at Risk in Southeast Asia (RRSEA) is published by WRI, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC), ICLARM – The World Fish Center, and the International Coral Reef Action Network.