Environmental Threats to Coastal Communities

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Environmental Threats to Coastal Communities in the Coral Triangle: Patterns, Responses, and the Path Forward

Abstract

This research paper serves to illustrate the detrimental impacts of environmental threats including overfishing, pollution and climate change on coastal communities in the Coral Triangle region. The paper begins with a brief introduction and background, illustrating the significance of this region to conservation efforts. It then details several critical issues facing the island countries that make up the Coral Triangle and how each issue impacts the local population. Next, the paper discusses responses to these environmental threats, focusing on two individual case studies along with a key regional initiative. The paper concludes with a summary of the information presented and recommendations for future action.

Introduction

The Coral Triangle is a regional area located in the western Pacific Ocean that contains the most diverse coral reef species in the world. The Coral Triangle covers six million square kilometers of coastal waters across six unique countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste. Over 120 million people live in coastal communities (within 100 km of the coast) in the Coral Triangle region, relying on coastal waters for their livelihoods and as a source for food (Pomeroy et al., 2015). This paper details the dangers posed by environmental threats including overfishing and destructive fishing, pollution, and climate change for coastal communities in the Coral Triangle, including their potential consequences for the region, actions taken to date, and recommendations for the future. Through two case studies, the paper illustrates best practices and lessons learned at the local level. A study of Malaysia highlights national and state level policy responses enacted in response to environmental threats in a country with a high human development index (HDI) and annual gross domestic product (GDP). A separate case study on the Solomon Islands serves to illustrate the potential response to these threats in a lower resource setting. Both case studies identify lessons learned along with common pitfalls and barriers to success. The paper then details a key regional initiative meant to streamline resources and ensure coordinated efforts to combat shared threats. Finally, the paper concludes with a brief summary of findings and recommendations for Coral Triangle communities moving forward.

Background

Human beings have long contributed to the destruction of the environment; however, this damage has increased exponentially during the era of globalization. Developed nations, including the United States, are continuing along a pattern of overconsumption and resource exploitation, while less developed nations are industrializing with common disregard to the environment. As the global population continues to rise, the scale of human-led destruction will only worsen further.  Although climate change is a global issue which will impact every country, in few places are the immediate stakes as high as in the Coral Triangle. The Coral Triangle countries are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their relative size, level of food insecurity, geographical positioning in an area that is highly susceptible to extreme weather events, and dependence on coastal and marine biodiversity as an income and food source (Valmonte-Santos, Rosegrant, & Dey, 2016).

The waters of the Coral Triangle house a wide range of species, including coral, fish, and other marine life. Over half of the world’s coral reefs are located in the Coral Triangle, including 76% of known coral species and 37% of all known fish species (Pomeroy et al., 2015).  This rich biodiversity makes the Coral Triangle a global conservation priority. Beyond global environmental considerations, though, are the immediate consequences that the continued degradation of the Coral Triangle poses to local coastal communities.  Damaging practices including overfishing and pollution are contributing to rapid losses in species diversity, threatening the main source of protein and income for many. The destruction of reefs and other marine barriers leaves coastal communities vulnerable to rising sea water. Impacts of climate change, including increased ocean acidification, warmer ocean temperatures, and more frequent and destructive extreme weather events compound these issues.  The consequences of deteriorating coastal biodiversity are already becoming evident. Without a coordinated effort to reverse current trends, the impacts of environmental degradation on coastal communities who rely on these waters for their livelihood and sustenance will only worsen moving forward.

The six countries positioned within the Coral Triangle represent socially and economically diverse populations. Coastal communities in the Coral Triangle have thrived for thousands of years living off the sea. Fortunately, the majority of these countries recognize the immediate threat that continued environmental degradation poses to their national interests. Higher-income countries including Malaysia and the Philippines have the ability to dedicate significant resources to restoring their coastal waters and preventing further damage.  Governments and local communities in lower resource settings including the Solomon Islands and Timor-Este are equally committed to preventing the further damage. In addition to national and community level responses, both high and low-income countries in the Coral Triangle must work together through regional initiatives focused on protecting their collective coastal resources and safeguarding the future for coastal communities.  

Critical Issues

Overfishing and Destructive Fishing

Coastal communities in the Coral Triangle rely on local marine resources as a source of income and food. Local sources of income tied to the coastal environment include fishing, nature tourism, and marine trade, among others. Overfishing and destructive fishing represent the “most significant local threats to coral reef ecosystems in the Coral Triangle region” (Huang & Coelho, 2017). Overfishing occurs when fish are caught in such large quantities and in such a rapid fashion that species cannot adequately replenish. In the Coral Triangle, overfishing is driven by both increased local demand and demand for fish from countries that lie outside the region (WWF, 2009).  Destructive fishing methods are typically employed in low-resource areas that are also overfished. Local fishermen who lack the financial means to procure traditional fishing equipment turn to destructive methods such as dynamite or poison.  As coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, overfishing and destructive fishing methods result in significant and long-lasting harm. Overfishing reduces the resiliency of reefs to adapt to stressors, including disease and increasing ocean temperatures due to climate change. Destructive fishing methods, including poison and dynamite, destroy coral reefs at staggering levels.

Despite laws meant to curb these destructive practices, both overfishing and destructive fishing methods remain pervasive throughout the Coral Triangle. In contrast to large-scale commercial fishing, local fishermen typically rely on fish that can be caught closer in to the coast. If these coastal species are overfished, local fishermen lack the means to search deeper into the ocean to replace their lost yields. Additionally, as income and population continue to rise in these communities, the demand for fish as a source of protein is also projected to increase (Points & Robertson, 2017). This increase in demand will be unsustainable if nothing is done to protect the local species from being overfished to the point of collapse. Overfishing and destructive fishing also damage coral reefs and contribute to coastal destruction, which in turn hampers the local tourism industry. Overfishing and destructive fishing methods therefore impact not only the ability for locals to make a living, but also threaten the food security of local and regional communities who rely on this fish as a source of food.

Various laws and regulations have been put into place at the regional, national and local level aimed at curbing overfishing and destructive fishing practices. Local governments have worked in concert with international donors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to introduce sustainable fishing practices that provide an alternative to traditional and destructive methods. In 2010, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) began working with several countries in the Coral Triangle region, including the Solomon Islands and Timor-Este, to improve their overall management of coastal and marine resources while simultaneously improving food security. Alternative approaches promoted by the ADB initiative included aquaculture, low-cost fish-aggregating devices (FADs), and improved natural resource management (NRM) through marine protected areas (MPAs) and other means. A study was undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute from 2011 – 2013 to measure the impact of the strategies and approaches implemented through the ADB project. Results from the study confirmed the potential for high returns on investments of fisheries development strategies, particularly in relation to NRM approaches and the deployment of low-cost inshore FADs. The study predicted that in the Solomon Islands alone, an annual investment of $230,000 on FADs could potentially generate a yearly income of more than $5 million in 2035 (Points & Robertson, 2017). These and other interventions provide a clear basis for the deployment of sustainable fishing practices in order to reduce overfishing and destructive fishing methods. Sustainable fishing will contribute to protecting both coral and marine species along with the livelihoods and food sources of coastal communities.

Pollution

Another significant threat to the Coral Triangle and its coastal communities is pollution of the air, land, and water. Land-based pollution is transported via rivers and wind, while marine-based pollution occurs due to marine dredging, mining, dumping and shipping (Todd, Ong, & Chou, 2010). A large quantity of marine-based pollution stems from the bustling trade routes located within the Coral Triangle region. Shipping traffic results in oil spills, trash disposal, ballast waste, and pollution from ports. Unsurprisingly, marine-based pollution in the Coral Triangle is highest in the most heavily populated areas of Indonesia and Malaysia where marine trade is the most active (WWF, 2009). The rapid development and urbanization of coastal lands in Coral Triangle countries has also contributed to the pollution of local waters. Coastal development and logging operations have increased the scale of watershed-based pollution, sending nutrient fertilizer runoff, sewage and polluted sediment into coastal waters. Runoff from land-based activities is intensified in many Coral Triangle countries due to heavy rains and steep hills stemming from its geographical location (WWF, 2009).

Pollution in the Coral Triangle contributes to the death of coral and marine species, which in turn damages the livelihoods of those living in coastal communities. Increased development with a lack of foresight and sustainable urban planning leads to overcrowded coastal communities with inadequate infrastructure to appropriately manage potential pollutants. Tourism-related development also negatively impacts coastal communities, contributing to runoff and pollution during the construction and management phase. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), “development along the coast threatens more than 30 percent of the Coral Triangle Region’s reefs, with more than 15 percent of reefs under high threat” (Burke et al., 2012).   Individuals living in coastal communities also contribute to the pollution problem through improper waste management and poor hygiene practices.

Pollution results in a marked drop in water quality, creating unsustainable conditions for coral and marine life. Increases in nutrients in the water from runoff results in eutrophication, which can be highly destructive to coral species. Eutrophication is thought to have been responsible for the destruction of up to 60% of parts of Indonesia’s coral diversity (Todd et al., 2010). Destructive fishing methods using poison and burning of forests for resources such as palm oil also contribute to the pollution of coastal waters, increasing the level of toxins in the water.  Pollution of coastal waters in the Coral Triangle could be greatly reduced with increased efforts towards sustainable development.

Climate Change

The preceding two sections focused on localized environmental threats to the Coral Triangle and its coastal communities. Climate change, in contrast, speaks to a variety of global environmental threats which impact every corner of the globe, including the Coral Triangle. Climate change refers to the human-induced accelerated warming of the planet, stemming from an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the atmosphere. The scale and magnitude of the threat posed by climate change is nearly universally agreed upon by the scientific community, international, regional and local stakeholders across the globe. Specific climate-change related threats as they pertain to the Coral Triangle include increasing sea surface temperatures (SST), ocean acidification (and other chemical alterations), rising sea levels, and increased extreme weather events, among others (Dey, Gosh, Valmonte-Santos, Rosegrant, & Chen, 2016).  Climate change is interrelated with the local environmental threats previously discussed in this paper. The impacts of climate change will be compounded if local coastal communities do not reduce environmentally hazardous practices such as overfishing and destructive fishing while also curbing pollution. Local communities will be forced to adapt to the realities of climate change in order to ensure their ability to survive in the future.

Due to their geographical location, countries located within the Coral Triangle region are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The Coral Triangle is already host to some of the warmest SSTs in the world (WWF, 2009). Coastal ecosystems will likely be fundamentally altered due to further increases in SSTs due to climate change. Factors linked to climate change including increased SSTs, ocean acidification, extreme weather events and erratic rainfall will all contribute to the rapid degradation of the local coastal economy (Rosegrant, 2016). Climate change related coastal degradation will result in reduced fish production, leading to fish stock shortages. Increased SSTs will also increase the scale and frequency of coral bleaching events. Coral bleaching occurs when coral species experience stress due to warming waters, and significantly reduces the ability for reefs to recover from disease or additional stresses (Weeks et al., 2014). Coral bleaching may be accelerated by altered chemistry in the ocean due to increased absorption of carbon dioxide resulting from high greenhouse gas emissions. Coral bleaching events reduce the vibrancy and biodiversity of the coral reefs that coastal communities rely on both for marine resources and tourism.

Rising seas and extreme weather events can wreak havoc on coastal communities in the Coral Triangle, particularly in areas where locals reside in homes that are below or only slightly above sea level. The global sea level is steadily increasing, and is projected to rise an additional 30 to 60 cm by 2100. Negative consequences of global sea level rise include changes to coastal wetlands and lowlands, increased coastal flooding and erosion, increased damage from floods and storms, and saltwater intrusion into estuaries and deltas (Mcleod et al., 2010). The high level of coastal populations in the Coral Triangle make these communities especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Coastal communities, or those populations living within 100 kilometers from the coast, make up 61% of the population in Papua New Guinea, 96% in Indonesia, 98% in Malaysia, and 100% in the Philippines, Timor-Este and the Solomon Islands (Mcleod et al., 2010). The combination of sea level rise paired with extreme weather events including tropical cyclones and monsoons has the potential to catastrophically damage coastal communities. This includes not only the further degradation of their environment, but an increase in the number of lives lost due to flooding and other climate related events. The impacts of climate change, paired with additional environmental threats posed by overfishing and pollution, will contribute to negative health outcomes and reduced economic output for the coastal communities in the Coral Triangle. Climate change adaption and coastal management strategies and approaches are necessary for Coral Triangle communities to mitigate the consequences of climate change related threats.

Local and Regional Responses

Case Study: Malaysia

Malaysia is one of the most developed countries in the Coral Triangle region in terms of gross domestic product and socioeconomic status. It is also the third most populated of the six Coral Triangle countries, behind the Philippines and Indonesia, with approximately 30 million inhabitants. Malaysia is ranked highest of all Coral Triangle countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), a tool developed by the United Nations to measure achievement of several critical dimensions of human development. Malaysia is made up of two geographical areas – Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia – which together include about 4,600 kilometers (roughly 3000 miles) of coastline and 102,000 square kilometers of sea area (ADB, 2014a).  The majority of the population in Malaysia resides in coastal areas, and this number has only continued to expand in recent years (Salmah & Jammalluddin, 2010). Coastal communities living in Malaysia rely on its coral reefs for tourism revenue and marine resources (fish and other species) as a source of consumption and income. 

Malaysia has invested in conservation of its coastal and marine resources at the national, sub-national and local level through a variety of regulations and initiatives. At the national level, the Government of Malaysia has enacted a series of laws and policies relating to environmental regulation. These include the National Parks Act of 1980, the Exclusive Environmental Zone (EEZ) Act of 1984, Fisheries Act of 1985 (updated in 1993), and the Wildlife Protection Act of 2010, among others. The National Government also established a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) in 2004 to enforce maritime-related laws. National-level policies surrounding biodiversity and resources management include a National Biodiversity Policy, National Environment Policy, and National Policy on Climate Change. State-level policies and laws tend to follow national-level guidance, although some states have more robust policies in place than others. There are several national agencies responsible for managing and enforcing conservation and coastal management efforts, including the Marine Park Department and Department of Fisheries. The Government of Malaysia has also ratified several international laws pertaining to marine resource management including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, among others (ADB, 2014a).  Local and International NGOs are also working together with the national government to enact measures geared towards improving the sustainability of coastal and marine resources.

 Projections based on the current coastal fishing situation in Malaysia predict reduced output due to overfishing.  Despite the wide range of national and state level policies and regulations aimed at sustainable fishing and improved resource management, coordination of efforts and outreach to local stakeholders remains weak. Without local buy in, meaningful change remains a challenge. Additionally, policies and regulations are typically enacted with isolated goals such as managing fisheries or protecting certain species. These unilateral efforts fail to consider the interrelation between various environmental threats. Additional threats to Malaysian coastal resources and communities include rapid urbanization, increased development, and increased tourism. Although these factors are important in the continued socioeconomic development of the country, the benefits are unevenly spread, with low income costal residents seeing the least improvement.

Case Study: Solomon Islands

In contrast to Malaysia, the Solomon Islands are ranked poorly both in terms of human development and economic output. The islands, of which there are nearly 900 in total, are located in the easternmost stretch of the Coral Triangle region. The Solomon Islands are populated by less than 1 million people. Given their relatively small size, 100% of Solomon Island residents are considered to be coastal populations. The islands’ coastal waters contain a broad range of coral and marine species. As with Malaysia and many other Coral Triangle countries, fish is the largest source of protein for the local population (Dey et al., 2016). Continued environmental degradation and climate change will inevitably result in fish stock shortages and other changes to local fisheries, negatively impacting the local economy and health of the people. The Solomon Islands are also at an increased risk for damaging tropical cyclones, which typically do not occur in other areas of the Coral Triangle.

The Solomon Islands manage their marine resources through national level strategies and policy frameworks which include sustainability as a foundation for coral reef use. National level laws geared towards managing resources and promoting sustainability include the Fisheries Act, the Wildlife Protection and Management Act and the Environment Act, all passed in 1998, and the Protected Areas Act which became law in 2010. Despite these regulations at the national level, local compliance remains a challenge. These challenges are due to several factors, including the need for local populations to generate daily income, a poor enforcement structure, and knowledge gaps relating to science-based decision making (ADB, 2014b). The primary mechanism guiding the management of the coastal and marine resources in the Solomon Islands is their National Plan of Action (NPAO), which was developed under the regional Coral Triangle Initiative discussed further in the section below. Through this plan, the government works together with NGOs, development partners, and international donors to implement conservation, education, and public awareness activities at the national and local levels (ADB, 2014b).

Although gaps remain in the linkage between national level initiatives and local communities, there are some grassroots organizations committed to enacting change from the bottom up. One such group, the Kahua Association, is a local non-profit organization that aims to foster participatory development in which decisions are made based on the best interests of the collective whole with respect to the environment. The Association is comprised of local leaders and representatives from the women’s council, youth council, religious leaders and conservation and biodiversity experts.  Local groups including the Kahua Association have the potential to bridge the divide between national level policies and local needs and realities. These groups should be engaged at higher levels to translate policy into action.

Regional Response: The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security

The Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security is the most comprehensive regional effort to collectively manage coastal and marine resources within the Coral Triangle. The CTI was codified through a multilateral agreement between all six Coral Triangle countries in 2009, and provides a platform for coordinated responses to shared environmental threats. The CTI is funded in part by international donors and conservation groups including the ADB, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Global Environmental Facility, among others.

The CTI includes an agreed upon Regional Plan for Action along with individual National Plans of Action developed by each implementing country. The regional plan was finalized in 2010, and presents an roadmap for conservation efforts and policy goals for the six countries to aspire to over a ten year period (Berdej, S., Andrachuk, M., Armitage, 2015). The effort has been widely successful in catalyzing an environment for fruitful regional discussions and priority setting. The five main targets outlined in the regional plan include: priority seascapes are designated and effectively managed; an ecosystem approach to management of fisheries and marine resources is fully applied; marine protected areas are established and effectively managed; climate change adaptation measures are achieved; and the status of threatened species is improving (Asian Development Bank, 2014). 

While the CTI is an important step in the regional effort to conserve precious resources, mitigate environmental threats, and build resiliency, it also has its limitations. As the regional plan is a nonbinding agreement, it is constrained by the sovereignty of individual states to carry out (or not) agreed upon standards and approaches. Diverse countries with varying national priorities, economic interests, and local needs may not always be able to find common ground in what policies should be enacted or activities implemented. Additionally, as with national level initiatives in Malaysia and the Solomon Islands, CTI activities are often inadequately linked with local stakeholders. Without a regional enforcement mechanism that treats all offenders equally, many rule breakers lack the incentive to change environmentally damaging behaviors.

Conclusion

The Coral Triangle, made up of six countries and spanning hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in the Western Pacific Ocean, is home to some of the most diverse and ecologically important coral reefs and marine species in the world.  Urbanization and population growth have contributed to densely populated coastal communities who rely on coastal resources to make a living and sustain their families.  Local threats to the sustainability of these coastal communities and the ecosystems they depend on include overfishing and destructive fishing practices along with marine and land based pollution. Global threats to the Coral Triangle region stemming from human induced climate change include rising sea levels, increased extreme weather events, and warming oceans. If left unchecked, these environmental hazards will have enormous consequences for the populations of the Coral Triangle region. Approaches to counter environmental threats to the Coral Triangle must be multidimensional, taking into consideration not only resource management, but also the reduction of pollution, and sustainable development.  National governments should work in concert with local, regional, and global stakeholders to develop and scale context-appropriate approaches.

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