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New Coral Triangle Pact Closes Pacific Tuna Spawning Grounds For Fishing

A commitment by six Asia-Pacific nations to protect a huge swathe of ecologically rich coral reef is an important step, although the pact is non-binding and key details still need to thrashed out, conservationists said.

Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands border a stretch of reef known as the Coral Triangle, which contains 76 percent of all known coral species and is a vital tuna spawning ground.

The pact signed during the World Ocean Conference in Manado, Sulawesi, last week includes a commitment to crack down on illegal fishing and pollution, and enforcing new tuna fishing regulations to protect spawning grounds.

"It's non-binding and it's not a treaty but as a commitment to each other it's quite important," said James Leape, international director general of conservation group WWF.

"The most important thing is the political platform that the declaration provides and some were quite explicit about creating new marine protected areas," he said.

Under a summary draft of the agreement seen by Reuters, countries could move to develop and bring in new sustainable fishing laws over the next three years.

The pact also indicates commercial tuna fishing could be curtailed in spawning sites under the agreement.

In exchange, countries could be compensated either by nations that buy a lot of tuna, such as the United States, or by being allowed to do more fishing in other parts of the Coral Triangle, said a source involved in negotiations who asked not to be named.

"If we can get financial mechanisms to compensate for protecting spawning areas, that would be very exciting," said the source.

An official from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) told the Manado summit on Friday that more than $350 million had been pledged towards the project and the ADB would help countries access funds via the Global Environment Facility, an international body that provides grants for projects.

It remains unclear, however, how countries could enforce the pact in a mostly poor region where illegal fishing is common and law enforcement often weak or non-existent.

The Coral Triangle also faces pressure from climate change and reefs could disappear by the end of this century unless countries slash carbon emissions from their current levels, a report commissioned by the WWF warned last week.

The head of Conservation International welcomed the pact.

"In 30 years of conservation work, I have never seen anything like this: six leaders signing a commitment to protect their marine resources," Peter Seligmann said in a statement.