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[ILOILO CITY] Fisheries specialists representing seven South-East Asian nations agreed last week to intensify and better coordinate efforts to enhance stocks of rare marine life by releasing animals reared in captivity into the sea.

The scientists and senior officials from government fisheries departments issued a resolution outlining their consensus on 15 July at a meeting in Iloilo City, the Philippines.

The resolution said marine animals should be reared until they are juveniles and released into suitable habitats to strengthen existing stocks "as part of an integrated management strategy for sustainable use and conservation of aquatic resources".

The animals will be reared in land-based hatcheries similar to those used to supply juveniles to fish and shrimp farms.

The resolution added that the approach should only be used after others, such as protecting habitats and limiting fishing, have failed.

"We have decided to use stock enhancement of 'species under international concern' to address the depletion of aquatic life across South-East Asia," said Jurgenne Primavera, a senior scientist with the intergovernmental South-East Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) who is based in the Philippines.

Endangered: sea turtle in Malaysia
Credit:ReefBase / Yusri Yusuf

Primavera was referring to hundreds of species — including giant clams, seahorses, turtles, corals and fish — that are threatened by unsustainable practices such as trawling and fishing with cyanide poison or explosives. The animals include economically, ecologically and culturally important species.

"In South-East Asia, overfishing coupled with conflicts of various users' interests on the limited and degraded fisheries call for urgent actions to rectify fisheries' practices," said Suriyan Vichitlekarn, policy and programme coordinator at the SEAFDEC secretariat in Indonesia.

The problems are not confined to marine species. Hanh Choundara of landlocked Laos's Department of Livestock and Fisheries said unsustainable fishing, pollution and sedimentation had contributed to declining stocks of fish and other species in lake and rivers.

The resolution said research into the potential risks and benefits of stock enhancement should be done before and after animals are released, and that countries should use only native species in these projects.

It also noted the need for improved technologies for breeding and assessing the genetic makeup and health of juveniles that are to be released.

Some Asian countries already release juvenile fish reared in hatcheries, although they do this primarily to boost stocks of food species rather than to conserve threatened species.

Restoring marine biodiversity through stock enhancement and other techniques will take a long time, said Wilfredo Yap, chief of SEAFDEC's research division.

"We have just started," he told SciDev.Net. "It will not take place in our lifetime but maybe in our children's children's."

The 15 July resolution was drawn up at a meeting held in Iloilo City to assess the region's capacity for using the approach.

It marked the start of a five-year stock enhancement programme being undertaken by SEAFDEC and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and funded by Japan.

Nearly 60 fisheries specialists from ASEAN members Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and from Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan, attended the meeting.

Representatives of the three other ASEAN countries — Brunei, Cambodia and Singapore — could not attend.