Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia

A. Overview of the East Asian Seas Region

East Asian Seas hold incomparable marine biodiversity, including the world’s largest expanses of coral reef, mangrove and seagrass, underpinning high productivity. However, rapid change over the past decades, including demographic change, social and economic development, and altered lifestyles, have had significant implications for marine environmental health.

Hundreds of millions of people in the region rely on seafood for much of their protein intake, and many nations are major seafood exporters. This drives over fishing, in some instances destructive fishing, and expansion of coastal aquaculture. Agriculture, logging and other land use contribute to siltation and delivery of nutrients, herbicides and pesticides to the marine environment. Disposal of untreated or partially treated wastewater, including domestic, industrial and agricultural wastewater, are significant sources of coastal pollution. With changing economies and lifestyles, marine litter has emerged as a major challenge, and the region may generate as much as half the world’s marine plastic litter. Pollution from maritime transport may have locally severe impacts. There is also significant alteration of the shoreline and coastal environment through reclamation as well as shoreline armouring to address coastal vulnerability to erosion.

These pressures on the marine environment have led to widespread habitat degradation. Over half of the original mangrove cover has been lost, and the annual rate of loss remains high in many countries. The region’s coral reefs, wetlands and seagrass have further sharply declined. Climate change and ocean acidification increasingly add to direct anthropogenic pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems. Ecosystem degradation results in loss of biodiversity as well as ecosystem services and associated economic values that underpin fisheries, tourism and shoreline protection.  

While demographic and development pressures are major drivers of marine and coastal degradation in the region, adverse environmental consequences stem in part from poorly conceived planning of coastal and marine areas and challenges associated with national and regional policy and governance frameworks.

B. Introduction

East Asian Seas boast incomparable biodiversity that supports livelihoods and economic development. Yet marine and coastal ecosystems in the region face a range of threats including unsustainable coastal development, overfishing, ocean warming and acidification, and rampant pollution.

The Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA) is a regional intergovernmental mechanism bringing together nine countries (Cambodia, People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Viet Nam) in development and protection of the marine environment and coastal areas of East Asian Seas. 

Activities are guided by the COBSEA Strategic Directions 2018-2022, adopted in 2018, with a focus on addressing land-based marine pollution; strengthening marine and coastal planning and management; and sharing marine environmental management experiences and policies towards strengthened regional governance. The COBSEA Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP MALI), adopted in 2008 and revised in 2019, identifies common priorities and provides a regional framework for cooperation in tackling marine litter.

COBSEA is administered by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Secretariat is hosted by Thailand.

C. Background

Aimed at protecting the East Asian Seas marine and coastal environment for the health and well-being of present and future generations, The Action Plan for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment and Coastal Areas of the East Asian Region (the East Asian Seas Action Plan) was adopted in April 1981 and revised in 1994.

The Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA) oversees the implementation of the Action Plan and is the sole decision-making body for the Action Plan. At the request of participating governments, UN Environment Programme established the Regional Coordinating Unit for the East Asian Seas Action Plan in 1993, functioning as the Secretariat for COBSEA.

Specifically, the Action Plan is aimed at assessment of the state of the marine environment including effects of marine and land-based activities on environmental quality; and development of coordinating measures for successful implementation of the action plan.  Areas of focus identified include:

  • Long-term monitoring and environmental assessment
  • Utilization and protection of marine resources
  • Development and maintenance of monitoring and environmental assessment programmes
  • Management aspects of rehabilitation of vital ecosystems and restoration of ecologically or economically important species and communities
  • Quality assurance for pollution monitoring
  • Capacity building

D. Organizational Structure

COBSEA has these main structures

  1. Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia: decision-making body for the East Asian Seas Action Plan with the overall authority to determine its content and review its programme of implementation including policy decisions concerning all substantive and financial matters. COBSEA discharges its responsibilities through biennial Intergovernmental Meetings (IGM). The IGMs are organized by the COBSEA Secretariat, and are conducted based on UNEA Rules of Procedure. Countries participating COBSEA: Cambodia, People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Viet Nam.
  2. National Focal Points: COBSEA National Focal Points act as the official channel of communication between governments and the COBSEA Secretariat. The National Focal Points coordinate participation of and guide national institutions and experts in implementation of programmes and projects. National institutions provide the institutional basis for carrying out the projects under the East Asian Seas Action Plan.
  3. COBSEA Secretariat: The COBSEA Secretariat is hosted by Thailand and administered by UN Environment Programme. The Secretariat provides overall technical coordination and supervision of the implementation of the East Asian Seas Action Plan.
  4. COBSEA Working Group on Marine Litter: The COBSEA Working Group on Marine Litter is established to promote implementation of the COBSEA Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP MALI), providing strategic as well as technical support and advice to the COBSEA Intergovernmental Meeting and COBSEA Secretariat; exchanging information that supports implementation of the RAP MALI; and promoting regional cooperation in the context of the RAP MALI. The Working Group may also establish Expert Groups to undertake specific functions.

E. Areas of work

Implementation of the East Asian Seas Action Plan is guided by strategies adopted by the COBSEA Intergovernmental Meeting. The current strategic directions for 2018-2022 focuses on

  1. Land-based pollution:
    • Nutrients, sediment and wastewater and sediment: Preventing and reducing eutrophication and sedimentation and their impact on the marine and coastal environment
    • Marine litter and microplastics: Preventing and reducing marine litter and microplastics in the marine and coastal environment.
  2. Marine and Coastal Planning and Management: Enhancing and strengthening ecosystem-based marine and coastal planning and management based on the best available scientific evidence, focusing on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) including networks of MPAs as well as marine spatial planning in the COBSEA region 
  3. Governance, Resource Mobilization and Partnerships: Providing an effective regional policy mechanism for the coastal and marine environment

F. Partnerships

COBSEA partners with various sectors of society (government agencies, non-governmental organizations, media, youth groups, the private sector, civil society, and the scientific community) to implement programs and activities under the framework strategies adopted by COBSEA. Partnerships are a crucial means to advance implementation of the East Asian Seas Action Plan, including by providing financial support as well as leveraging technical expertise and other resources within as well as outside the region.  

G. Ongoing projects

  1. SEA circular: A regional project implemented by COBSEA and the UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific with support from the Government of Sweden. SEA circular aims to reduce marine litter and plastic pollution through better management of the plastic value chain, and directly supports implementation of several provisions of the COBSEA RAP MALI. For further information see SEA circular and COBSEA websites.
  2. Marine and Coastal Spatial Planning (MCSP): In partnership with Blue Solutions Initiative, COBSEA aims to advance MCSP in the East Asian Seas by building capacity and supporting development of a conducive policy environment. Activities include a regional training and a review of policies to identify recommendations towards an enabling policy environment for MCSP and ecosystem-based approaches. For further information see COBSEA website.
  3. Two UNEP GEF projects are underway in the context of the East Asian Seas Action Plan: The USD 15M project ‘Implementing the Strategic Action Programme for the South China Sea’, which addresses the habitat, land-based pollution and regional coordination components of the Strategic Action Programme; and the USD 3M project ‘Establishment and Operation of a Regional System of Fisheries Refugia in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand’, which implements the fisheries component of the Strategic Action Programme, executed by SEAFDEC. COBSEA has an umbrella coordinating role for these projects. For further information see project website.

H. Key achievements

  1. Revised COBSEA Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter adopted in 2019 by the 24th Intergovernmental Meeting of COBSEA
  2. COBSEA Strategic Directions 2018-2022 adopted in 2018
  3. South China Sea Strategic Action Programme and associated National Action Plans adopted, with two ongoing Global Environment Facility projects towards their implementation  
  4. COBSEA’s Regional Resource Document on Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning, to support the integration of new approaches into existing spatial planning frameworks and systems
  5. National Assessment Reports prepared on sea-level rise and coastal erosion in the East Asian Seas
  6. Over 600 recreational diving companies across the world continuously and measurably reducing their environmental footprint through ‘Green Fins’, an industry partnership for environmental stewardship initiated though COBSEA for the protection and conservation of coral reefs
  7. SEA of Solutions, an annual multi-stakeholder event facilitating knowledge exchange and partnership-building on marine litter, convened through the SEA circular project

I. Interesting facts about the East Asian Seas region and the Convention

  • The first version of the East Asian Seas Action Plan was adopted nearly 40 years ago, by five countries. Today nine countries participate on COBSEA
  • The East Asian Seas region has the richest marine biodiversity in the world
  • The seas of East Asia cover a total area of 7 million km2, fed by some of the world’s longest rivers such as the Mekong and Yangtze river 
  • COBSEA countries have extensive coastlines and a combined sea area equivalent to about 30% of the world’s sea space under national jurisdiction
  • More than three quarters of the region’s total population of over 2 billion live in coastal areas
  • Approximately one third of the world’s megacities (cities with a population of more than 10 millions) are located on the coasts of East Asia
  • The region heavily depends on fisheries and aquaculture for food and the East Asian Seas generate more than 40 percent of the world’s fish production and is the top region globally for seafood experts
  • Marine and coastal industries such as ports and shipping, fishing and coastal tourism comprise 15% to 20% of the GDP in some East Asian countries
  • East Asia has the world’s largest expanses of coral reef, mangrove and seagrass. Human activities directly threaten 95 percent of the region’s coral reefs, with half of reefs under “high” or “very high” threat. Mangrove forests have been reduced to half of their historical coverage in the region.
  • East Asian Seas countries are estimated to contribute more than half of the plastic waste that flows from land into the sea globally

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Phone: +66 2 288 1234