The Indian Ocean is rapidly emerging as an essential crossroads of the global market and a key focus of international politics. Rising flows of trade, investment, people, and ideas around the region are linking the Indian Ocean countries to each other and to the rest of the world ever more closely. Already more than two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of its container traffic, for example, pass through Indian Ocean waters. Yet the natural riches residing beneath the Indian Ocean’s waves will be as important to securing the region’s future welfare as the commercial wealth traveling over the sea.
Fisheries represent one of the Indian Ocean region’s most important assets. Fisheries nourish hundreds of millions of people and provide livelihoods to coastal communities around the Indian Ocean rim. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and mounting environmental pressures, however, increasingly place these vital natural resources – and the populations that rely on them – at risk.
Regional fish catches have grown tremendously in recent decades. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), from less than 900,000 tons in 1950, Indian Ocean marine capture fisheries supplied 11.3 million tons of fish in 2010, about 14.6 percent of the world catch. Harvesting the ocean’s bounty contributes substantially to many regional economies. In Indonesia, for example, fishing and fish farming employ nearly 6 million people, more than work in the country’s vaunted textile and apparel industries. In addition, the FAO calculates that for each person directly employed in fishing, another three to four find jobs in related activities such as boat construction, gear maintenance, and fish processing. Equally importantly, fisheries furnish a crucial food source for communities around the Indian Ocean region. On average, for instance, Egypt, Malaysia, Mozambique, Seychelles, Singapore, Tanzania, and Thailand obtain 20% or more of their animal protein from fish. The people of Bangladesh, Comoros, Indonesia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka get more than half of the animal protein in their diets from fish.
Yet despite their importance to economic development and food security, Indian Ocean fisheries face significant threats. Growing stresses include overfishing and illegal fishing, habitat destruction and pollution, and the gathering strains of global warming.
Catch data in many areas are inadequate to evaluate the health of specific stocks, but signs of over-fishing are increasing. In the Eastern Indian Ocean, landings reached their highest tallies ever in 2010, but more than 40% of catches were classed as “unidentified,” worrisomely suggesting that the growing numbers may reflect not sustainable trends but a largely unregulated expansion into new areas and species. In the Western Indian Ocean, the Southwest Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission conducted assessments of 140 species in its area, concluding that 65% of stocks were fully exploited in 2010, and 29% were overexploited.
Illegal and unreported (IU) fishing complicate efforts to effectively monitor and manage the region’s fisheries. A British study of selected species representing about half of the total catch in the Indian Ocean figured that some 16 to 34% of the catches in those stocks were illegal or unreported. IU fishing often occurs at the expense of local fishers. The FAO, for instance, estimates that 700 foreign vessels were fishing without license in Somali waters over recent years. Tragically, foreign ships were thus likely illegally removing more protein from Somali waters than they were delivering to Somalia in food aid and famine relief.
Myriad other human pressures increasingly endanger the underlying ecosystems that sustain the region’s fisheries. Coastal development for ports, roads, and urban infrastructure is damaging or demolishing mangroves, coral reefs, and other habitats. Asian coastlines, for example, lost 1.9 million hectares of mangroves from 1980-2005, while Africa lost another half million. Pollution, destructive fishing practices (such as the use of dynamite and poisons), coral mining for construction materials, and coral bleaching have already destroyed or critically endanger as much as two-thirds of the Indian Ocean’s 12,070 km2 of coral reefs.
Oceans are also among the most vulnerable of all environments to continuing global climate change. As humanity relentlessly pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans will in turn absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have taken up 25 to 30% of society’s cumulative CO2 emissions. This extra carbon dioxide alters the ocean’s chemistry, making it more acidic (measured by a lower pH value). From preindustrial levels, the surface ocean pH has already fallen by 0.1 units. If emissions continue unabated, acidity levels will tumble another 0.2 to 0.3 points by 2100, a drop 30 to 100 times greater than any previous pH change and at a rate unprecedented in the geological record. By the same token, as climate change warms global average temperatures, the oceans will also absorb more heat from the atmosphere. Over the past 50 years, the oceans have soaked up some 90% of the added heat generated by global warming, boosting surface ocean temperatures by about 0.1oC.
Oceanic warming and acidification could significantly impact global fisheries, affecting the physiology, reproduction, and development of individual species as well as the relations between species and their habitats, food sources, competitors, predators, and pathogens. As the global population swells from 7 billion to 9 billion by mid-century, several studies anticipate that world fish production might have to rise by half from current levels to keep pace with projected food requirements. Yet available analyses suggest climate change could engender substantial shifts in catch sizes and locations.
Large-scale redistribution of world fish catches could risk creating both winners and losers. One extensive global assessment projects that maximum catch potentials relative to 2005 levels could increase markedly in much of the Arabian Sea and East African waters. But catch potentials could also plummet 30 to 50% or more in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, among other areas. Within the Indonesian EEZ, catch potentials could slip more than 20% by 2055, the largest drop for any country. In the Bay of Bengal, where roughly one third of landings come from fishing grounds beyond national EEZs open to regional and foreign fleets, the models foresee maximum catches in these same areas declining up to 50%. Such a sizable shuffle of fishing potential could dramatically alter fisheries practices and food politics around the Indian Ocean.
In the face of such challenges, aquaculture – farming fish, shellfish, and other aquatic animals in captivity – is emerging as an increasingly robust alternative source of fish production, expanding twelve-fold globally since 1980, according to the FAO.
The pace of aquaculture development has been uneven around the Indian Ocean. Fish farming generally proved slower to take root in southeastern Africa than in southeastern Asia, for example. But across the region as a whole, the sector has helped allay food security concerns in a number of countries. In 2010, six Indian Ocean nations – India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Egypt, and Myanmar – counted among the top ten producers worldwide, providing over 11.3 million tons of fish between them, more than all of region’s capture fisheries combined.
Aquaculture is not without its own drawbacks, of course, including the environmental impact fish farms can have on their surrounding habitats, as well as the rapid transmission of disease between fishes living in such close quarters. Nevertheless, aquaculture appears poised to become an increasingly important component of food security in the Indian Ocean region, reflecting a larger global trend. The FAO now expects that aquaculture will soon produce more seafood annually than wild fisheries for the first time in history. Already well-established in the Eastern Indian Ocean countries, it is the overfished waters of the western Indian Ocean rim that will likely see the greatest aquaculture growth in the years ahead. Here, export-oriented fish farming from Mozambique, the Seychelles, and others – destined to supply growing markets across Africa, Asia and beyond – will furnish yet another thread knitting Indian Ocean economies and environments more closely together.
David Michel is the Director of the Environmental Security program at The Stimson Center. Russell Sticklor is a Research Associate with the Environmental Security Program. They are the editors of Indian Ocean Rising: Maritime Security and Policy Challenges (Stimson Center, 2012).