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Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines endorse landmark plan to protect the Sulu-Celebes Sea


In a latest move to accelerate cooperation in fisheries management and conservation in Sulu-Celebes Sea (SCS), three of the largest Association of Southeast Asian Nations economies—Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—endorsed a landmark commitment to implement a regional conservation program on 29 October 2013 in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Environment and fisheries officials from the three countries signed the Regional Strategic Action Program that aims to make fisheries production in the Sulu-Celebes Sea sustainable. SCS is among the 200 most critical ecoregions in the world, but it promises to offer prosperity to the region if sustainably managed. This large marine ecosystem (LME) is also within the territorial jurisdiction of these three countries.

Signatories to the commitment were Dr. Sudirman Saad, Director General of

Marine, Coast and Small Islands, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF),

Indonesia; Datuk Ujang Sulanim, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry Sabah, Malaysia; and Atty. Asis G. Perez, Director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Philippines.

Sulu-Celebes Sea Sustainable Fisheries Management Project

The Sulu-Celebes Sea Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SCS-SFMP) is the first regional collaborative project of the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME) under the stewardship of the Tri-National Committee and its sub-committee on sustainable fisheries.

The project is being funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The United Nations United Development Programme (UNDP) is the implementing agency while the United Nations Office for Special Services (UNOPS) serves as the project executing agency. Lead agencies from the three countries include the MMAF of Indonesia, DoFS of Malaysia, and BFAR of the Philippines. Conservation International – Philippines facilitated the trans-boundary diagnostic analysis (TDA) and national and regional planning processes.

The signing of endorsement was the culmination of a two-year process that included consultations with key stakeholders, experts and relevant government agencies in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. These consultations built a consensus on the common problems that affect the Sulu-Celebes Sea and their potential impacts on the environment and the well-being of more than 40 million people who depend on this sea.

The SCS-SFM Project has the following components: 1) conduct of the Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis, 2) formulation of the Strategic Action Program, 3) institutional strengthening, 4) demonstration site, and 5) knowledge management.

Highest in marine biodiversity

Sulu-Celebes Sea encompasses the Sulu and Celebes (Sulawesi) Seas that are separated by a chain of islands called the Sulu archipelago. This large marine ecosystem is a tropical body of water that gives life support to Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos and the rest of the world.

The region harbors the highest marine biodiversity among the world’s oceans. It is at the top of the Coral Triangle – the region where the number of species of corals, fishes, molluscs, mangroves, seagrasses and algae are highest in the world. This high diversity of marine organisms provides resiliency against natural and human-induced stresses.

This high diversity of marine life results in healthy ecosystems that provide food and the capacity to cope with natural and man-made calamities and impacts.

Ecosystem services

The high biodiversity of the Sulu-Celebes Sea provides a wide array of ecosystem services.  The stocks of marine fishes in mangrove forests, coral reefs, bays and pelagic waters are the natural resources exploited by coastal and offshore fisheries to provide food (provisioning service). The coral reef ecosystem of the Sulu-Celebes Sea supports diverse fisheries and provides an annual potential fish yield of 675,380 metric tons. The seafood benefits the people living around the SCS-LME and exported fishery products benefit the world. The economic value of this service contributes a conservative value of about 5-7% of the three countries’ gross domestic product.

The SCS-LME also has the potential to store large quantities of carbon, which is important in regulating climate and removing pollutants in the water (regulating service).   The mangrove forests, peat-swamps, and seagrass beds regulate sedimentation into coastal waters and coral reefs.  The peat-swamps store and regulate freshwater flowing into coastal waters. Mangrove forests and coral reefs protect coastlines from being eroded and human settlements from being washed-over by surges during storms and typhoons (regulating service).

The extraordinary sites of biodiversity and beauty are also attractions that tourists from the region and around world are interested to experience and enjoy and are willing to pay for its conservation.


Some of the reasons contributing to the decline of the fishery resources are the increasing demand for fish for food and other uses; destruction of coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves; pollution; and increased human activities because of trade, travel, tourism and urbanization.

Other causes of this problem are the lack of political will from the government due to undervaluation of the economic importance of the fisheries sector; weak regulation of regional illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing; low priority given to fisheries and the marine environment in national planning; and inconsistencies in government laws and regulations.

Moreover, habitat loss and community modification, climate change, marine pollution, freshwater shortage and introduction of alien and invasive species all contribute to the decline in fishery resources.

Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis

The TDA was conducted to identify and prioritize the transboundary environmental problems and analyse their root causes.   A similar activity was conducted in 2002 in the SCS-LME under the GEF/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)/Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) Project.

The TDA under the SCS-SFMP is an update of the GEF/UNEP/GIWA findings and analyses of the root-causes of the transboundary problems (TPs). The identified and prioritized TPs were the following: 1) unsustainable exploitation of fish, 2) habitat Loss and community modification, 3) pollution, 4) freshwater shortage, 5) global warming, and alien and invasive species.

The TDA included the watersheds surrounding the SCS-LME because of the impacts of the activities in the watershed that transcend to the marine ecosystem.  The ecological and socio-economic impacts of these problems, projected to 2020, will be severe unless interventions are put in place.

Strategic Action Program

Given that the identified problems and threats to the Sulu-Celebes Sea are transboundary in nature, joint regional actions from the three SCS countries are necessary to address these concerns.

On March 19-20, 2012, the SSME Sub-Committee on Sustainable Fisheries has accepted the TDA findings during its 6th Annual Meeting in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia during March 19-20, 2012. The Sub-Committee also agreed to proceed in the preparation of the Strategic Action Program (SAP) for the SSME. The results of the TDA became the bases for the drafting of strategic action programs to be implemented in both regional and national levels.

The SAP focuses on the unsustainable exploitation of fish, the first priority among identified TPs in the TDA.  The SSME tri-national committee hopes that the implementation of this SAP will provide the impetus for raising more interest and funding support to address the other five TPs in the next phase of this project.

Through the regional management and conservation of small pelagic fishes using an ecosystem approach in fisheries management, the plight of the fishing communities and the health of the marine environment can be improved.

The SAP identified targets and activities in six thematic areas: 1) science-based, social and management Interventions using the Ecosystem Approach in Fisheries Management; 2) resource valuation; 3) monitoring, control and surveillance; 4) information, education and communication; 5) livelihood development, and 6) capacity building.

Food security for 40 million plus people

Romeo Trono, UNOPS regional project manager for the SCS-SFMP, said that more than 40 million people who are living within and around the Sulu-Celebes Sea are highly dependent on the resources from this sea.

However, recent trans-boundary assessment showed that overexploitation of fish as well as increased intensity and capacity in fishery resource extraction have been happening since the 1960s resulting in the declining fish size and catch by fishers. The total marine fisheries production in the SCS countries during the last decade represents a tenfold increase from the 1950s.

Poverty incidence is also generally higher in coastal communities in the Sulu-Celebes Sea area. The decline in fishery resources, in addition to the fast growth of the population, greatly affects the economic situation of these fishing communities.

The SAP will focus on addressing the management and conservation issues related to small pelagic fishes (e.g., sardines, long-jawed mackerel, big-eye and round scads, and frigate mackerel), the most abundant and with stocks shared by the three countries.

Trono said that by focusing the SSME’s conservation plan on small pelagic fisheries, the welfare of economically marginalized communities is being taken care of. He added that small pelagic fishes like sardines, scads and mackerel do not only provide source of income to fishers but are also the more affordable protein source for lower-income population in the region.


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