With the longest unfragmented fringing reefs in the world, and the second highest coral reef diversity after Western and Central Pacific, the South West Indian Ocean (SWIO) natural riches are unparalleled (one of the most important marine biodiversity hotspot on the planet). The SWIO region, expanding from Somalia down to South Africa, and including the SWIO island states, has more than 18,000 Km of coastline; 660,000 Km2 of continental shelf; 8,781,208 Km2 of EEZs, and has a variety of other important coastal and marine habitats, including sandy, rocky and muddy beaches, estuaries, coastal wetlands, mangroves and sea grass beds. In addition, the estimated 11,000 marine species found in these waters include WWF priority species such as all the five Indian Ocean marine turtles, more than 35 marine mammal species, including whales, dolphins and the highly endangered dugong, whale sharks, coelacanth (the living fossil), and a huge diversity of fish species, including commercial species such as tuna, shrimp, lobster and octopus.
The region’s rich natural resource base provides the basic resources - such as fish and invertebrates – which support the livelihoods of more than 60 million people living in the coastal belt, but the fish trade expands further inland, impacting even more people.
Fisheries is currently one of the most important socio-economic sectors for the SWIO states and their coastal populations, taking in account their poverty (with one of the lowest development levels worldwide) and very low level of industrial development and, therefore, high dependency on the exploitation of natural resources. Fisheries sector in the region includes artisanal, semi-industrial and industrial sub-sectors targeting a variety of resources, mainly mollusks and small pelagic, representing the bulk of catches, and being mainly caught by artisanal fisheries and beach/reef collectors, and, therefore, with more local and national relevance; demersal, including crustaceans (the most economically important coastal and continental shelf fisheries group, including shrimp, lobster, crab, langoustine, etc.), great pelagic (tuna and tuna-like species, billfish, sharks, etc., which are also of greater economic importance and dominate by more than 70% of offshore catches).
The Indian Ocean region is important for tuna and supports one of the largest industrial tuna fisheries in the world, accounting for 20-24% of the global catch in 2012. Fifty four per cent (54%) of this (totally produced by foreign fleets – mainly from Spain,
France, Japan, Korea and China, with exception of Seychelles and Mauritius, which have some fishing fleet) came from the South West Indian Ocean region, corresponding to around 850,000 tons valued at US$ 1.3 billion. The SWIO region is also a very important world level wild shrimp fishing ground with important catches produced within the Mozambique Channel (mainly Mozambique and Madagascar, but including at lower scale, Tanzania and Kenya). All the commercial fisheries (tuna, shrimp, etc) are almost only for export (linked with regional and international seafood markets), representing, therefore, a vital source of exchangeable earnings for the region, to spur economic development.
However, unsustainable fishing, and other poor coastal resource use practices, including clearing coastal vegetation, has put the whole region under threat, negatively affecting the rich biodiversity and also the livelihoods of millions. This is further compounded by the impacts of oil and gas exploration, and inappropriate tourism infrastructure to supply other global markets. Weak governance, inadequate fishing methods, unsustainable financial flows and external market forces fail to demand/promote sustainability. This pressure is heightened by the needs of the growing population of mostly poor communities in the coastal zone (both due to natural growth and transmigration) that are heavily reliant on the natural resource base for food and other basic needs; intensified by the rapidly growing economies and expansion of the middle-classes of the region. Furthermore, climate change poses a long-term threat to the biodiversity of the region and the people and economies whose hopes for a better future depend on the preservation and sustainable use of its resource base.
Fisheries development in the region lacks a harmonized approach, with larger-scale commercial fisheries often promoted at the expense of small scale fisheries. In addition to that, there is often little consideration for the role of civil society, including local communities, as agents to ensure transparency, inclusiveness, accountability and ownership. Fisheries management also lacks appropriate human rights approaches that foster equity in access to fisheries and related benefits. Also, gender concerns and challenges in the fishery sector are ill understood and addressed.