Six Asia-Pacific countries agreed Friday on a wide-ranging plan to protect one of the world's largest networks of coral reefs, promising to reduce pollution, eliminate overfishing and improve the livelihoods of impoverished coastal communities.
The agreement at the World Ocean Conference creates a voluntary management plan for an area defined as the Coral Triangle, which spans Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor. It accounts for a third of the world's coral reefs and 35 per cent of coral reef fish species.
'The [climate] changes we expected to see are actually happening faster than we thought.' —Mary M. Glackin, U.S. deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere
Several governments committed money to the plan during the two-day meeting, including the United States, which pledged $40 million over five years.
The agreement, known as the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security, follows a symbolic memorandum signed earlier in the meeting by government officials from 80 countries. It calls for improved efforts to protect oceans from overdevelopment and illegal fishing.
Much of the discussion has focused on the vital role seas play in absorbing greenhouse gas emissions and how they are affected when higher temperatures melt polar ice sheets, cause sea levels to rise and fuel devastating and more frequent storms.
Scientists, activists and government officials warned that climate change could wipe out entire ecosystems and destroy the livelihoods and homes of up to 100 million people this century in Southeast Asia as fish are killed off and coastal communities flooded.
"The changes we expected to see are actually happening faster than we thought," said Mary M. Glackin, U.S. deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. She pointed to quickly melting ice sheets as an example.
And because oceans take up carbon, they are becoming more acidic, eroding seashells, bleaching coral and killing other marine life, she said, "so that is an unexpected thing."
Philippines, Malaysia, Australia pledge millions
Other countries that pledged money ranging from $1.7 million to $5 million to help protect Southeast Asia's coral reefs included Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Australia, among others.
"This starting pledge is the first proof that all these countries intend to follow through with action," Indonesia's Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Freddy Numberi told reporters.
Those gathering in Manado noted that climate change was not the only thing jeopardizing the world's oceans: Pollution from overdevelopment and industrial runoff along with destructive fishing techniques using dynamite and drift nets were also playing a devastating role.
The leaders vowed to address some of those issues immediately, but calls for action were short on specific commitments.
"We will strive to reduce pollution of the ocean, coastal and land areas and to promote sustainable management of fisheries," they wrote in a declaration, calling also for the protection of mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs.
Efforts also will be made to protect the most vulnerable communities that are dependent on marine resources and improve the technology needed to answer the many questions that remain about oceans. They also called for additional funding to help countries adapt to climate change and create sustainable jobs.
One of the hopes of attendees is that the conference will help heighten awareness about the need to include oceans into the larger debate about global warming. Many scientists want oceans on the agenda when governments gather in December at a UN climate change meeting in Denmark to draft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.