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The COVID-19 pandemic presents countries with a unique opportunity to reverse the decades-long deterioration of the oceans, according to a new report released Wednesday by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). 

As ocean traffic decreases amid vast economic slowdowns, new policies can be put in place that allow for more sustainable interactions with the ocean.

"During these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to take advantage of the window of opportunity offered by reduced emissions and energy demand to protect the marine environment," Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, head of ESCAP, said at the report’s launch event.

"Many of the challenges in the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and marine resources lie in the transboundary and highly complex nature of ocean management, coupled with the fragmented understanding of the interaction between oceans and human activities," she said. 

The "Changing Sails: Accelerating Regional Actions for Sustainable Oceans in Asia and the Pacific" report focuses on four ways countries can improve their relationship to the ocean as they prepare for a "green recovery" in the wake of the pandemic. 

First, countries need to collect more data on the oceans and then share this information across borders to allow for informed marine policy. For instance, better data collection within fisheries would allow countries to prevent fish populations from further plunging. Improved data sharing around ocean waste would allow countries to come up with solutions for preventing ships from dumping waste in marine habitats, while better data on coastal areas could prevent their ongoing erosion. 

Countries can also develop more inclusive and sustainable maritime shipping systems that improve access to trade, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are projected to rise by up to 250% by 2050 unless interventions are made, the report notes. 

Since more than 80% of international trade is done via shipping, and two-thirds of which takes place in Asia, it will take immense resources to transform the industry, according to the report.

Shipping vessels themselves have to be modernized and refurbished in ways that can capture emissions, automate travel, and minimize idle time, all in an attempt to decarbonize the industry, the report says. 

The ongoing pandemic actually incentivizes the use of some of these "smart" systems because they minimize human-to-human contact. 

Tourism, especially via cruise ships, is a sector closely linked to shipping that has been heavily disrupted by the pandemic. In the years ahead, tourism operators have the opportunity to invest in eco-tourism options that allow the environment to recover. 

The report highlights the fishing sector as an area where countries can make progress in the years ahead by cracking down on illegal fishing and poaching ventures, and managing fisheries in regional partnerships to better track fish populations.

Finally, the report warns that plastic pollution has gotten out of control, particularly in Asia, where 95% of marine plastic waste originates. 

Countries have to rapidly move to circular economies that minimize waste generation overall, with special restrictions on plastic production. There’s also significant room for improving domestic waste management systems to prevent waste from flowing into the oceans in the first place. 

There are many other challenges facing the ocean — from warming and acidifying waters to sound pollution to oil extraction and mining

"Let us seize this moment to steer our region’s sails toward a sustainable future," Alisjahbana said in the report’s foreword. "With strong data and a regional commitment as our compass, we will chart the right course."


Defend the Planet

COVID-19 Pandemic Provides Opportunity to Protect Oceans: Report

By Joe McCarthy