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Asia-Pacific: A Struggle Region For Endangered Marine Species

Public awareness of the threat to marine wildlife has grown in a number of Asian countries, thanks to the work of governments as well as that of local and international nonprofit organizations.

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Plastic
A dead sperm whale that washed ashore in Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia's Sulawesi province had nearly six kilograms (13.2 lbs) of plastic waste in its stomach, November 19, 2018. RFA

Early this month, the United Nations celebrated World Wildlife Day with a focus on oceans and marine wildlife.

The focus was appropriate given the large number of marine species which are regarded by scientists as either endangered or vulnerable around the world.

The Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed more than 700 marine species or subspecies as either endangered, or vulnerable. Vulnerable means being close to being endangered.

Many of the endangered marine animals can be found in East Asia and the Pacific.

Among them are well-known animals such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and tuna fish.

In one extreme case, tuna fish are being driven to the point of extinction in the South Pacific by illegal Chinese fishing.

Humans—and not just from China—have destroyed much marine life through overfishing, industrial development, and chemical pollution, some of it caused by pesticides.

Add to this the man-made warming of ocean waters caused by greenhouse gases as well as a proliferation of plastic waste littering coastal waters in Asia.

Plastic waste floating in ocean waters is turning out to be the most difficult environmental challenge facing many Southeast Asian nations.

A new study on ocean ‘heat waves’

Meanwhile, under the water, trends look ominous.

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Thailand, which had been slow to deal with plastic waste, now plans to ban the use of very thin single-use plastic bags in 2022. This is to be followed by a ban on single-use plastic glasses and straws three years later. Pixabay

A new report published on March 4 by the journal Nature Climate Changeshowed that ocean “heat waves” are occurring more frequently than they did in the last century.

As the Reuters news agency explained, most previous studies on the impact of climate change on the oceans have focused on a gradual rise in the waters’ temperatures.

Those temperatures hit a record high in 2018, causing some fish to swim toward the cooler water of the North and South Poles.

The new study prepared by a team of scientists from seven nations is the first to study marine heat waves, which are defined as lasting for at least five days at temperatures far above average.

The heat waves pose threats to fish, coral reefs, and other forms of marine life and could disrupt the livelihoods and food supplies for millions of people.

Saving sharks

Despite the negative image that many people have of sharks, they provide benefits to their ecosystem. But they, too, are threatened not only by heat waves and pollution but also by the practice known as finning.

As described by the environmentalist Mark Carwardine, “finning is the gruesome practice of cutting off a live shark’s fins and throwing the animal back into the sea, where it dies a slow and painful death.”

For more than a thousand years, shark fins have been used by Chinese communities around the world as a key ingredient in shark-fin soup.

A number of countries, including China, have banned finning. And as far back as 1991, 28 airlines agreed not to transport shark fins.

China has banned the use of shark-fin soup at banquets, although the practice apparently continues to take place at some private events.

Danny Mok of The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Feb. 12 that shark fins were among luxury items worth millions of dollars that Hong Kong customs police seized last month.

During a 27-day effort to tackle cross-border smuggling into China before and during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, Hong Kong customs officials arrested more than 1,200 people engaged in the smuggling operations.

The smugglers were dealing in endangered wildlife species, including pangolin scales, as well as ivory tusks and ivory products, orchids, and shark fins, which altogether were valued at an estimated $9.4 million.

This seemed to indicate that some among China’s growing middle class still value shark fin soup as a delicacy and status symbol.

But Simon Denyer of The Washington Post reported on Feb. 15 that based on government figures and private surveys, consumption of shark fin soup in China had fallen by about 80 percent since 2011.

At the same time, however, the consumption of shark fin soup had risen in some other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, according to Denyer.

In a report published in 2018, WildAid, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization focused on reducing the demand for illegal wildlife, listed the main markets outside China for shark fins as Taiwan, Indonesia, Hong Kong.

Oceana, a non-profit organization established in 2001by leading foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that sharks play a key role in protecting coral reefs by removing predatory fish such as groupers that feed on herbivores.

Coral reefs provide homes and protection to thousands of fish species.

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Plastic waste floating in ocean waters is turning out to be the most difficult environmental challenge facing many Southeast Asian nations. Pixabay

The good news

Despite the growing threat to marine life caused by climate change, the proliferation of plastic waste and pesticides, overfishing, and industrial development, there is some good news.

Public awareness of the threat to marine wildlife has grown in a number of Asian countries, thanks to the work of governments as well as that of local and international nonprofit organizations.

Thailand awakened to the threat to marine wildlife caused by plastic in early June last year when a pilot whale washed ashore in canal in southern Thailand.

A Thai rescue team attempted to remove all of the plastic but failed, and the whale died. Veterinarians discovered that the whale had swallowed some 80 pieces of plastic waste. It had mistaken the bits of plastic for food.

Also Read: Repeated Calls For Release Of Website Editors Who Criticized Life-Threatening Working Conditions in Chinese Factories

Thailand, which had been slow to deal with plastic waste, now plans to ban the use of very thin single-use plastic bags in 2022. This is to be followed by a ban on single-use plastic glasses and straws three years later.

But when it comes to sharks, Thailand as well as Indonesia and Malaysia continue to be part of a group of countries that have not yet banned shark finning, according to a report dated 2017 from the nonprofit organization WildAid. (RFA)

Next Story

Study Claims, China Shifts Away From Coal-Fired Power Plants Due To Environmental Concerns

The State Development and Investment Corporation, a central government-run investment group with significant holdings in the power sector, announced earlier this year that it would no longer fund coal projects.

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Cars pass the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant in Shanghai, March 22, 2016. VOA

China restarted construction on more than 50 gigawatts (GW) of suspended coal-fired power plants last year, bucking a global shift away from fossil fuels, a new study showed Thursday.

China has repeatedly pledged to reduce its reliance on coal, a major source of smog and climate-warming greenhouse gases, and it has cut coal’s share of its total energy mix to 59 percent, down from 68.5 percent in 2012.

But satellite images show China “quietly resumed” construction in 2018 on dozens of previously shelved plants, making it a “glaring exception to the global decline,” said a joint report by environmental groups Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

The report warned that China could build an additional 290 GW of capacity, more than the whole of the United States’ coal capacity, and still remain within the 1,300-GW cap for national coal-fired power generation proposed by the China Electricity Council, an influential industry group.

A general view of a Chinese-backed power plant under construction, May 23, 2018, in Islamkot in the desert in the Tharparkar district of Pakistan's southern Sindh province.
A general view of a Chinese-backed power plant under construction, May 23, 2018, in Islamkot in the desert in the Tharparkar district of Pakistan’s southern Sindh province.. VOA

China’s National Development and Reform Commission and its National Energy Administration did not immediately respond to faxed requests to comment on the conclusions of the report.

Lauri Myllyvirta, analyst with Greenpeace’s Global Air Pollution Unit, said Chinese firms are now “pushing for hundreds of additional coal-fired power plants.”

“Another coal power construction spree would be near impossible to reconcile with emission reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming,” he said.

Worldwide, the number of newly completed coal projects fell 20 percent in 2018 and plant retirements continued at a record pace, the study said.

China and coal

But China’s relationship with the dirtiest of fossil fuels remains ambivalent.

The domestic coal power capacity under construction rose 12 percent in 2018, though it was still a third lower than what was being built in 2015. Beijing has also cut back dramatically on new project permits.

While China has vowed to cap consumption nationally and even make cuts in regions like Beijing, Hebei and Henan, overall coal-fired generation has increased, particularly from new “coal bases” in the nation’s northwest.

And though it has promoted alternative fuels at home and built hundreds of solar and wind farms, China is still financing more than a quarter of the new coal-fired plants abroad.

FILE - Chinese employees working, Dec. 11, 2017, on a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China's eastern Anhui province.
Chinese employees working, Dec. 11, 2017, on a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China’s eastern Anhui province.. VOA

Soft landing for coal

China is also keen to prop up coal prices and ensure a “soft landing” for a commodity responsible for millions of domestic jobs in struggling industrial districts.

The availability of increasingly competitive and reliable renewable energy, however, has led to concerns that coal investments will soon become unprofitable “stranded assets.”

Also Read: US Approves Secret Nuclear Power Technology for Saudi Arabia

The State Development and Investment Corporation, a central government-run investment group with significant holdings in the power sector, announced earlier this year that it would no longer fund coal projects.

Sources told Reuters last week the central bank is also about to release new guidelines that will prevent “clean coal” projects, including low-emission coal-fired power plants, from issuing “green bonds.” (VOA)