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Sulu-Sulawesi Program

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion Program focuses on preserving the shared ecosystem of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In 1997, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) identified 200 ecoregions around the world, which it defined as large units of land or water that are biologically distinctive with characteristic species, ecosystems, dynamics and environmental conditions. The Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME) was ranked as a priority site because of its biological qualities and the prior stewardship efforts and cooperative relationships of the three nations.

WWF initiated the development of a Conservation Plan for SSME by holding twelve stakeholder workshops in the region. The Plan recommended a management structure as well as a host of joint, national and local actions the three nations could take to preserve the ecosystem.

One key recommendation was to create a Marine Protected Area network to preserve representative areas of biodiversity. Other recommendations were to strengthen scientific communities, improve management of fisheries through policy development and community education efforts, and convey information on best practices in management and other matters, such as establishing environmentally-sustainable tourism industries.

The governments of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have demonstrated a commitment to the effort, signing a memorandum of understanding in 2004 that formalized a framework for cooperation and established a tri-national committee to discuss the implementation of the Conservation Plan. Additionally, WWF members are working directly with some coastal communities to support program goals.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scope: Focus on preserving biodiversity across political boundaries.
  • Collaboration: Development of multi-national consensus.
  • Balance/Integration: Commitment to developing and sharing information among stakeholders and scientific communities.
  • Adaptive Management: Commitment to adapting conservation strategies based on experience and additional data.


Mission and Primary Objectives


Through stakeholder workshops beginning in 2001, the World Wildlife Fund developed the following three-part visioning statement to guide the Conservation Plan for the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME):

  •  “A marine ecoregion that remains to be globally unique and a center of diversity, with vibrant ecological integrity, including all species assemblages, communities, habitats and ecological processes.”
  • “A highly productive ecoregion that sustainably and equitably provides for the socio-economic and cultural needs of the human communities dependent on it.”
  • “An ecoregion where biodiversity and productivity are sustained through the generations by participatory and collaborative management across all political and cultural boundaries.”


Additionally, the many recommendations outlined in the Conservation Plan support the following ten objectives:

  • Establish management strategies and coordinated institutions for effective ecoregional conservation.
  • Establish a functional integrated network of priority conservation areas to ensure ecological integrity.
  • Develop sustainable livelihood systems that support marine and coastal conservation across the ecoregion.
  • Shape economic development compatible with biodiversity conservation.
  • Enhance understanding of biodiversity resources and factors affecting them to form the basis for management decisions.
  • Develop communication, education and outreach programs and strategies to motivate people to take conservation action.
  • Develop sustainable financing mechanisms to support cost of conservation and resource management.
  • Build and enhance capacity of stakeholders to effectively manage the conservation of SSME.
  • Implement coordinated protection of threatened marine species to ensure maintenance of viable populations and protection of critical habitat.
  • Improve coastal, oceanic and other types of fisheries resource condition and management by developing a framework strategy, institutions and appropriate interventions.

Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Key Parties


  • Ministries of Environment
  • Ministry of Forestry
  • Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries
  • Kehati Foundation
  • Foreign Affairs Department
  • Bunaken National Park
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Development Planning Agencies of the Provinces of Manado and East Kalimantan
  • WWF Indonesia


  • Department of Fisheries-Sabah
  • Sabah Parks
  • Sabah Wildlife Department
  • Ministry of Tourism
  • Culture and Environment
  • Universiti Malaysia Sabah
  • Drainage and Irrigation Department-Sabah
  • Sabah Forestry Department
  • Department of Town and Regional Planning-Sabah
  • Department of Fisheries-Malaysia
  • Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment
  • WWF Malaysia


  • Department of Environment and Natural Resources
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Interior and Local Government
  • Government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao
  • Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development

Other Partners

  • Packard Foundation
  • U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. State Department
  • Australian Department of Environment and Heritage
  • United States Agency for International Development


Program Structure

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) advocated the following structure through development of its Conservation Plan for the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME):

National Committees

A special government body called the National Committee would be formed in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. It would consist of government agencies and stakeholders. Malaysia and Indonesia established the committees in 2003. The Philippines previously had established a national committee through presidential proclamation, allowing it to obtain funds from the government. It was also authorized to establish a board of trustees to set up a foundation to seek external funds. Technical working groups may advise each National Committee.

Coordinating Unit

A SSME Coordinating Unit, hosted by the WWF-Philippines, would have the following functions:

  • To facilitate decision-making on ecoregional concerns.
  • To monitor and evaluate progress of conservation efforts.
  • To assist stakeholders in attaining continued completion of efforts identified in the Conservation Plan.
  • To provide specific technical assistance to strengthen stakeholders’ conservation management capacity.
  • To develop standards in conservation management practices and assist stakeholders in complying with such standards.
  • To assist and implement projects where stakeholders have limited capacity.
  • To establish and maintain inter-sectoral and international linkages for resources generation, technology exchange, and information exchange.

Tri-National Committee

The Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in 2004 created the Tri-National Committee, an international body that would  act as a broad forum for discussions related to implementing the Conservation Plan.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have exhibited a high degree of cooperation through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, providing a foundation to address shared environmental matters that are not confined to political borders such as fishery stocks and pollution. They also signed the 1992 United Nations-facilitated Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes commitments to establishing networks of marine reserves. The nations have established roughly 400 Marine Protected Area (MPA) sites. Malaysia and the Philippines signed a bilateral agreement on the establishment of Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area.

Still, resource management deficiencies exist, including:

  • The MPAs are small and ineffectually managed, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
  • The countries lack reliable information on the ecosystem due to poor investment in research.
  • Law enforcement was ineffective in the area, allowing illegal fishing to become a problem.
  • Certain legal frameworks conflicted with the goal of conservation.

When WWF held a dozen stakeholder forums in the region between 2000 and 2003 to identify a Biodiversity Vision and Conservation Plan, stakeholders cited weak institutional arrangements and poverty among coastal communities as root causes of environmental degradation.

In crafting a Biodiversity Vision, which informed the Conservation Plan, WWF assembled 76 biophysical and socio-economic experts from academia, government and non-governmental organizations. Participants issued a resolution imploring the three nations to give their full support to the realization of the biodiversity vision in creating policies, legislation, and institutional arrangements. The plea was received favorably by the three nations; In 2004, a memorandum of understanding was signed to formalize the Conservation Plan, the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion Program and a framework for cooperation.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The World Wildlife Fund identified highly diverse and productive ecosystems within the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME), which it defined as including the Sulu Sea, Sulawesi Sea and the Philippine inland seas of the Visayan Sea, Bohol Sea, and Mindanao Sea, and all of the islands within those waters.

SSME terrain includes atolls, beaches, deep water basins, islets, sand cayes, shallow lagoons, submerged volcanoes and seamounts. Mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs and soft-bottom and pelagic environments can be found. The area forms the apex of the Coral Triangle, which is home to 500 of the 793 species of reef-building corals. More than 1,200 species of fish have been recorded, along with great numbers of sea snakes, saltwater crocodiles, migratory birds and at least 22 species of dolphins and whales. Endangered or threatened species in the SSME include varieties of sea turtles, giant clams, whale shark, seahorses and sea cows. Two of the largest nesting sites in the world for green and hawksbill turtles lie within the area.

A healthy ecosystem is critical to the 35 million people who live along the coastal areas adjacent to the SSME and represent 50 indigenous cultural groups. The ecosystem contains fisheries that are critically important in providing food for coastal communities, as well as commercially important catches, which include Napoleon wrasse, grouper, snapper, tuna and mackerel. The annual value of the commercial catch was estimated at $1 billion.


Overfishing and the use of destructive fishing practices, such as explosives and poisons, are damaging the ecosystem. Many fishers are living below the poverty line and rely on fishing for food or income and the reduction in catch per effort puts even greater pressure on fish populations.

Pollution and habitat destruction from poor land development practices, which include the destruction of mangrove forests for aquaculture, are impacting the ecosystem. Additionally, global climate change is introducing new stressors. A mass coral bleaching event was recorded in 1998 and warmer water temperatures are believed to facilitate coral bleaching.


Major Strategies

Marine Protected Area Network

Although about 400 marine protected sites are in the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) regards them as being mostly small and ineffectually managed in isolation. WWF is advocating the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) network. In 2003, WWF convened a workshop of experts in 2003 to develop a technical framework for MPA selection. Additionally, WWF is seeking high-level commitments from the three nations and identified several international events at which WWF could promote its MPA framework. WWF is continuing to chart a network design using biological and other criteria and seek support among coastal communities.

The framework established the following criteria as a starting point for the design of an MPA network:

  • Representation: The network should include examples of all biological communities and habitats within the ecoregion.
  • Viability: Protected areas should be large enough and their distribution broad enough to maintain viable populations of all species of special concern.
  • Ecological and evolutionary processes: Continuation of ecological and evolutionary processes that have shaped the characteristics of the ecoregion should be ensured.
  • Resilience: Areas selected for high levels of protection should include those known or likely to be particularly important sources of recruits for other parts of the ecoregion, or areas that have high survival rate or recovery rate following impacts.

Fisheries Management Program

Key fisheries cross political boundaries and need to be managed in a cohesive way that considers impacts on the ecosystem. Following a workshop, stakeholders from the three nations decided on the objectives of a Fisheries Management Program:

  • Improve the status and management of fishery resources in critical sites and Marine Protected Areas.
  • Enable stakeholders to build their capacity for fisheries management.
  • Stop illegal, unreported, unregulated and destructive fishing.
  • Develop and operate a mechanism to address transboundary fishery issues.
  • Develop financing mechanisms for sustainable conservation.
  • Increase public awareness.
  • Generate and use information for better management of fisheries and habitats.

Accomplishing the objectives will require the review and development of policy, and the development of education campaigns and monitoring and evaluation programs. The stakeholders in the Fisheries Management Program identified the Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines East Asian Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), a four-nation public-private sector regional trade body, as the platform to pursue the objectives.

Information Sharing and Education

Many of the actions outlined in the Conservation Plan related to the sharing or provision of information and best practices. For instance, WWF would catalogue successful efforts to create what it calls sustainable livelihood systems, such as ecotourism, aquaculture and other community-managed resources. The information would be distributed to non-governmental organizations, community groups and local government units. Similarly, WWF would produce a directory of experts, marine authorities and institutions with knowledge that could facilitate and enhance biodiversity. A workshop would be organized during which experts could identify gaps in information, set an agenda for research, and organize a research network.

Sea Turtle Program

Transboundary efforts are needed to back up national commitments to conserving marine turtles in the region. Additionally, field research and community education are needed.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The Conservation Plan developed by World Wildlife Fund specifies the need for a monitoring and evaluation system, which would be developed by the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion Coordination Unit. National committees would review and edit the system, and set up institutional arrangements to for system management. Information generated by the monitoring and evaluation system would be used by national committees and stakeholder groups to periodically review progress in meeting the goals of the Conservation Plan, revise its activities, and create additional workable experience-based conservation strategies.



Priority-Setting Plan

The Conservation Plan represents a blueprint for regional governments to follow to conserve and enhance biodiversity.


The memorandum of understanding signed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia represents greater cooperation and a serious acknowledgement of the need to jointly tackle ecosystem concerns.

Habitat Protection

New marine parks have been established in the region in areas deemed to be critically important by the conservation effort, including the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, the largest marine protected area in Malaysia at 350 square kilometers. Created in 2004, Tun Sakaran Marine Park contains a multiple-use area designed to protect biodiversity and manage fisheries. Residents are allowed to fish in designated zones and grow seaweed in others.

Fisheries Management

In Kudat and Semporan, Malaysia, for instance, ecosystem-based management of coastal fisheries is being established. Teams have surveyed 100 villages to develop socio-economic profiles, and patterns of resource use. More than 30 reefs were quickly assessed to establish baseline data. Training on wildlife conservation is continuing.


Website Links

Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (WWF program Web site):