Wanted in the South China Sea: more marine peace parks

From bleached coral reefs and dwindling fish stocks to plastic garbage patches, it is evident that our oceans are in crisis. In response, there has been a notable increase in the number of marine protected areas during the past decade.

Among those, the Marine Conservation Institute has recently identified three remarkable ones for the annual Blue Park award: Tristan da Cunha which is part of a British overseas territory, Gitdisdzu Lugyeks in Canada and Siete Pecados Marine Park in the Philippines. These parks have joined a growing network of 30 distinguished “blue parks” worldwide, all striving to knit together a protective web for marine life to safeguard critical habitats, foster resilience and preserve the unparalleled beauty of the oceans.

Marine protected areas are an effective management tool for promoting biodiversity conservation and fostering sustainable ocean activities, which yield important environmental and socioeconomic benefits.

However, the pursuit of blue parks faces significant challenges as it aims to harmonise ecological, climate and biodiversity goals within existing policies spanning national boundaries. Successful transboundary conservation demands cooperation and coordination among the concerned states.

Scientist and author Callum Roberts wrote in his book The Ocean of Life that our oceans are undergoing rapid changes unlike any others seen in Earth’s history, and he emphasises that humans are the primary drivers of this transformation.

This sentiment is common among marine experts, underscoring the global scope of human influence and the urgent need for collective action to mitigate the impacts of our activities. Roberts writes that “the geologic record gives us more than enough reasons to terrify us into action”.



‘We are just in the beginning’: top climate scientist warns the worst has yet to come

‘We are just in the beginning’: top climate scientist warns the worst has yet to come

The global tally of marine protected areas now stands at more than 18,000, with roughly 8 per cent of the world’s oceans covered by these areas. Marine protected areas cover 18.3 per cent of national waters – those within a country’s exclusive economic zone – and just 1.4 per cent of the high seas, which are beyond any one country’s jurisdiction.

These blue parks around the world are making great contributions to the conservation of biodiversity, maintenance of genetic resources and restoration of endangered fauna and flora in the ocean. For instance, the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area in Vietnam, a group of islands off the nation’s central coast, hosts many valuable terrestrial and marine plants and animals which are rare or endangered species. In 2005, Vietnam designated seven of these islands as a marine protected area.

Since then, Cu Lao Cham has become a model for marine conservation and was designated by Unesco as a global biosphere reserve in 2009. It earned this recognition not only for the restoration of marine ecosystems but also its contribution to the development of green tourism, which has created more sustainable livelihoods for local people.



Vietnam battles plastic pollution crisis at Unesco World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay

Vietnam battles plastic pollution crisis at Unesco World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay

In addition to protecting the ocean, transboundary marine protected areas, also known as marine peace parks, can also help prevent conflict while preserving and developing cooperation, friendship and peace among neighbouring countries. Some examples include the Red Sea Marine Peace Park, established in 1994 by Israel and Jordan in the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area, set up by the Philippines and Malaysia in 1996 in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea was also on the agenda at last month’s Westpac International Marine Science Conference, which was held in Bangkok in concert with the second UN Ocean Decade Regional Conference. A forum on local environment management, ecosystem coordination and sustainable use in the South China Sea said “improvement of [marine protected area] effectiveness is needed to reverse the degradation of habitats and living resources at the local level,” according to the programme’s lead convenor Vo Si Tuan.

Elsewhere, despite ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, coastal countries across the Mediterranean have been able to cooperate effectively to protect the region’s marine ecosystem and living resources under the framework of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Mediterranean Action Plan.

In particular, they have established specially protected areas to safeguard coastal and marine ecosystems in the region, ensuring their long-term viability and maintaining biological diversity. It is noteworthy that almost two dozen Mediterranean governments and the European Union recognised the required collective effort to address marine pollution, resulting in coordinated policies and jointly monitored research efforts.

The newly formed Transnational Red Sea Centre, designed to protect the ecosystems in the region, offers a promising example of regional science collaboration. Developed in cooperation and with support from the Foreign Ministry of Switzerland, the centre’s objective affirms that no region is so prone to conflict as to place science cooperation beyond reach.

The ocean continues to play a central role in geopolitics from the Red Sea to the South China Sea. Despite numerous obstacles, the ocean science community and people around the world – particularly those who live on vulnerable coastlines – are actively engaged in addressing pressing issues such as climate change, rising sea levels, plastic pollution, coral reef degradation and overfishing.

In recognising that effective policy shifts necessitate a consensus of knowledge and concerted political action, coastal nations are striving to chart a course towards a more sustainable future.

James Borton is a non-resident senior fellow at Johns Hopkins/SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground

Vu Hai Dang is an expert at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam



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