Climate change is creating a marine conservation emergency, and the first signs of this happening can be seen in intricately linked oceans.
Take for example the South China Sea, which is a third larger than the Mediterranean. What these two distinctive regions have in common is that they are strategic waterways, centers of political turbulence, and biodiversity. And yet, both are degrading at an alarming rate due to climate change and rapid socio-economic development.
Against this background, science and diplomacy have come together to address threats to marine life and coral reefs that draw these two regions together. With coral reefs and livelihoods in coastal communities in decline, more countries are creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to counteract these trends. Marine sanctuaries have been proven to increase biodiversity, enhance the biomass of fished species, and save coral reefs.
Marine scientists are using their reef-wide research, collaborative data collection, long-term monitoring and holistic management approaches in bridging political and cultural differences in efforts to mitigate environmental damages associated with climate change, over fishing, pollution and habitat loss.
There’s a reef crisis on the horizon since the vast majority of the world’s coral reefs are likely to be dead or in danger of collapsing in the coming decades because of climate change and other stressors.
At the recent 5th annual International Marine Protected Areas Conference held in Vancouver, policy experts and marine scientists shared data on how MPAs are making a difference in regional cooperation. This is particularly true in the Mediterranean since it is widely acknowledged as the first regional seas action plan that was adopted by the United Nations Environment Program in late 1974. It’s noteworthy, that the first MPA led to the development of the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution and Protocols.
The plan has undergone a series of revisions that has helped sustainable development for Mediterranean communities that include a collaborative Fisheries Commission comprised of 23 States plus the EU to regulate and manage marine resources, fishing methods and gear, and fisheries closures.
The urgency to address these tipping points for resource conflicts presents a clear and present danger as countries and companies pursue dwindling fish stocks. That’s why marine protected areas are spreading to meet global conservation targets.
With almost one-third of the world’s fish stocks overfished and a 50 percent decline in marine populations since 1970 regional collaborations are required to resolve fishing governance challenges.
Not unlike the myriad of South China Sea maritime trans-boundary disputes among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei over hundreds of islands, reefs and reclaimed land, the Mediterranean also has its fair share of conflicts that includes the Israel-Palestine clashes on the Gaza Strip to controversies between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea.
All parties understand the importance for a framework to address marine protection. Coral reefs occupy less than 0.1 percent of the ocean’s floor, but they provide huge ecological and economic benefits. According to the U.N. World Database on Protected Areas, approximately 15,000 MPAs protect more than 10.6 million square miles of the ocean. This represents about 7.5 percent of the ocean.
Nearly 25 percent of all marine species depend on coral cover at some point in their life. Also, the corals’ limestone branches protect coasts from storms and offer a livelihood for millions of lives.
Professor Karine Kleinhaus, a marine biologist from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and a coral reef specialist, explains in a news release that the “world’s coral reefs are like the canary in the coal mine for climate change.”
The global decline of corals signals the alarming impact of climate change and its affect on ocean temperature and marine life. This clarion call spurs global scientific cooperation to better understand the transnational character of the ocean and to recognize that coral skeletons chronicle the climate change record.
The International Coral Reef Initiative estimates that reefs support $2.7 trillion a year in goods and services, including tourism. In the Red Sea, these colorful rainforests of the sea provide food and source of employment to a population of over 28 million. Also, in the South China Sea, corals offer a food security safety net to more than 650 million citizens. The coral reefs are a microcosm of the planet displaying extraordinary diversity and reminding us of how deeply interconnected we are.
The Mediterranean Sea, stretches from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to Asia on the east and separates Europe from Africa. Scholars have often referred to it as the incubator of Western civilization. The Mediterranean Action Plan represents a regional monitoring network and legal instruments to protect the region from environmental exploitation and remains the floorboard for continuing cooperative efforts.
The increasing coastal development in the Red Sea region calls for multinational cooperation and connectivity to protect threatened marine from coral groupers to Green and Hawksbill turtles, whose nesting sites are located in nearby archipelagos.
“ If nations unify their conservation goals, the Red Sea’s economy may also be boosted by maintaining the current annual revenue of $230 million for fisheries and $12 billion for tourism,” claims Dr. Laura Gajdzik, an ecologist at the Red Sea Research Center in a recent science article.
Also, the newly formed Transnational Red Sea Center, designed to protect the ecosystems in the region offers a promising example of regional science collaboration. Developed in cooperation and with support from the Swiss Foreign Ministry, the TRSC objective affirms that no region is so conflict prone as to place science cooperation beyond reach. The center’s collaborative conservation program offers coral monitoring stations in Eilat, Israel and at Aqaba, Jordan.
“We are at present in the “diplomacy for science” stage, trying to secure the buy-in and cooperation of all coastal states in order for the scientific project to be carried out in the totality of the Red Sea,” adds Ambassador Alexandre Fasel, Special Representative for Science Diplomacy at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland.
Professor Maoz Fine, a Red Sea marine scientist from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes that coral reefs are the one common natural asset that is not part of any conflict and remains crucial for the livelihood of millions in the region. He was quoted in a recent Politico article, “If we will decide to play out the political game here, the reefs stand no chance,” said Fine. “These reefs recognize no political borders. Pollution doesn’t recognize political borders. We have to do it together.”
This is a global message that can be adopted by claimant nations in the contested South China Sea since too many red lines have been drawn because of contested sovereignty claims.
Mediterranean nations appear to better understand the maritime commons and this is a failure among claimant SCS countries in their persistent hotbed of territorial wrangles led by China’s so-called “nine-dash line.” Beijing’s declared 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative has not led to cooperation with ASEAN neighbors but has resulted in encroachments on territory within the 200-mie exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia and with it land reclamations that have destroyed fragile coral reefs.
“Despite national differences and unresolved maritime differences, (Mediterranean States) have been able to adopt deep commitments and make substantial attention to deal with a variety of environmental issues” claims Dr. Vu Hai Dang, a researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
The Red Sea may not be a perfect model for the myriad of geopolitical challenges in the South China Sea. However, the level of regional marine science cooperation among conflict nations like Israel and Palestine gives promise to the rise of networked marine protected areas even in the midst of China’s imposed red zones in the South China Sea.