Fisheries and Aquaculture – Potential for IORA countries

Fisheries and aquaculture have significantly influenced lives of the people living closer to the coastlines by providing them employment, income and food security. In 2012, nearly 58.3 million[ii] people were actively engaged in fish-rearing and harvesting activities all over the world. Global fish production (capture and aquaculture) in 2013 was 162.8 million tonnes[iii] (MT), which had grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.5 percent during the last decade, 2003-2013. The Indian Ocean region has been one of the most vibrant producers and commercially viable markets for fish products. This region, particularly eastern Indian Ocean has a huge stock of unexploited marine resources[iv] and thus holds immense potential for sustaining increased fish production, unlike other world oceans that are nearing their maximum sustainable fish yield. As per the estimates of Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean regions have shown a continual rise in the fish catch since 1950.[v]

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an economic conglomeration of coastal countries spread along the Indian Ocean border. It has 20 members[vi] that share an exclusive trade, investment and marine security relationship. IORA member countries contributed a share of 18.9 percent to the total global production of fishes in 2013. The fisheries and aquaculture sector in IOR has grown steadily over the period 2003-2013, with total catch of fishes nearly doubled from 88,713 in 2003 to 162,288 in 2013. Out of total production, capture production accounted for a dominant share of 60.8 percent and the remaining share of 39.2 percent was held by aquaculture production in 2013. Figure 1 shows the trend in total production, capture and aquaculture production in IOR during 2003-2013.


Source: Compiled from FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture statistics

Fish on the Table!

It has been witnessed that the consumption of fish is usually high in coastal and inland water states around the IOR due to greater and easy availability of different types of fish locally. Several developing and least developing economies in the IOR region such as Malaysia, Mozambique, Seychelles, Singapore, Tanzania and Thailand obtain over 20 percent of their animal protein intake from fish whereas countries like Bangladesh, Comoros, Indonesia, Maldives and Sri Lanka fulfil more than 50 percent of their requirement of animal protein from fish.[vii]

Rapidly growing population accompanied by growing interest in food quality and safety, nourishment and nutritional aspects and wastage reduction (in post-harvest phases) has led to a rise in demand for fish and its products (fish oil, fish meal etc.) in IOR countries. Since seafood (varieties of fish harvested from capture and aquaculture production) are an essential source of protein, their consumption has experienced a surge globally from an average of 9.9 kilogram (kg) in the 1960s to 19.2 kg in 2012.[viii]

In the IOR region, some countries like India, Indonesia, Mozambique, Bangladesh and few others have achieved a higher growth rate in fish food supply than their population growth rate over the period 2003-2013, thereby indicating that there exists a greater potential for nutritional food security of the people in those countries. Figure 2 shows the growth rates of population and seafood (fish) supply for IORA member countries for the decade 2003-2013. However, this potential will not be sustained for long as the Indian Ocean fisheries are facing several threats like overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, changing climatic conditions, ecological imbalance and pollution, degradation of natural habitat and overexploitation of natural resources. Some of these issues are discussed later.

Fisheries_2Source: Author’s calculation using data from FAO Statistics & World Bank

Fish across the Border – Trade Trends and Patterns

Fisheries and aquaculture sector is also an important foreign exchange earners for the countries in this region. International trade in fish commodities has shown an impressive growth of 8.5 percent (on CAGR) during 2001-2011 in IOR region, with trade recorded worth US $ 29.04 billion in 2011.This region contributed nearly 12.7 percent to the total quantity of seafood traded globally in 2011. The exports of fish and fishery products in value terms accounted for a larger share of 70.6 percent out of total IOR region trade, with the imports contributing merely 29.4 percent in the region’s trade in the same year. Amongst IORA member states, top five exporters of seafood in 2011 were Thailand (39.8 percent), India (17.3 percent), Indonesia (16.4 percent), Australia (4.9 percent) and Malaysia (4.5 percent).[ix] On the importing side, Thailand held the largest share of 32.6 percent, followed by Australia with share of 17.6 percent and Singapore with 13.6 percent market share. The increasing trend of fish exports in IOR region can be attributed to low import tariffs on fish in developed countries (which is a major export destination for developing economies), decrease in transportation costs, increasing world consumption of fishery commodities, favourable trade liberalization policies and others.[x]

Threats and Challenges

Since fisheries and other marine resources are a common good and are generally unmanaged (without clearly defined property rights), they are likely to be exposed to the problem of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ due to the public good nature.[xi] Due to non-excludable and non-rival nature of public goods, it becomes difficult to manage and limit their use to sustainable levels. The fishers, tempted by the short-term gains of harvesting fish tend to overfish the available fishery stocks, which ultimately lead to their exploitation. This problem has aggravated in the coastal communities dwelling around the IOR region. For example – Recently, in a report by Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Thailand was declared as one of the most overfished regions on the planet, with catch per unit of effort (CPUE)[xii] declining from 297.6 kg/hour in 1961 to 29 kg/hour in 2006.[xiii] This deterioration of fisheries in Thailand was driven by rapid expansion of fishing fleet coupled with their destructive fishing methods and gears.

The escalating demand for fish and its products (both for sustenance and export earnings) in IOR region has resulted in another problem of  fishermen resorting to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing which tends to deplete and degrade the marine ecosystems and poses serious threats to sustainability and food security in the future. For instance – In IOR member state Kenya, there was a rise in sea urchins population due to fishing out their predators i.e. triggerfish, which then resulted in eroding coral reefs and sea grass beds, thereby endangering other fish and fish stocks.[xiv] The lack of effective fisheries management guidelines and polices, weak governance systems and corrupt administrations have been responsible for exploitation of ocean and sea areas around the Indian Ocean.

The other major threat to the fisheries and aquaculture sector is that it is more prone to adversities such as global warming and climate change. Further, ocean acidification hinders the growth and development of aquatic plants and animals. Due to regular episodes of urban runoff near the coastal states, there is a large accumulation of toxic wastes, fertilizers, leaves, grass etc. in the oceans, which requires high level of oxygen to decompose, thus leaving less oxygen for fish and other marine species that they require to live. This high level of biological oxygen demand (BOD)[xv] by water bodies will be fatal for fisheries and ultimately result in collapse of the fish stocks. The fisheries are also vulnerable to high sea surface temperatures, as they tend to kill the fishes and other aquatic species.

Bycatch (trash fish) and discards is another issue of concern for the fisheries sector in IORA countries. Many countries resort to increasing catch of trash fish to compensate for the loss of higher value-species which further contributes to exploitation of marine resources. For instance – The recent figure from Thailand’s Department of Fisheries suggests that at least one-fifth of the country’s entire marine capture production value comprised of trash fish.[xvi] This trash fish is then used as a raw material to produce fishmeal which is fed to shrimps destined for export to the international market. The fishers in Thailand, guided by profit motive (from exports and other price incentives), delve into unsustainable fishing, thereby harming the marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

The fisheries and aquaculture sector in IOR region faces a serious challenge in the form of absence of correct and recent data on the status and available stocks of marine resources. The uncertainty in data often results in less reliable catch production data, which tends to underestimate or overestimate the production capacity of the resources. More efforts need to be made to rectify this issue.

Measures of Cooperation: A Five Point Strategy

To conquer the threats and challenges highlighted above, there is a need to strengthen the regulatory mechanism for the sector and enact certain enabling regulations. These recommendations are bulleted below in detail:

  • Need for a Regulatory Body: There is a need to establish a regulatory body to overcome the problems related to a public good. This would require proper allocation of stocks of marine resources to respective countries and lay down guidelines for legally sharing the resources.
  • Frame Regulations for Fisheries Management: To overcome the problem of overfishing, fisheries management regulations needs to be strengthened and proper monitoring and control strategies need to be devised. This would require regional fisheries bodies (RFBs) in different countries to engage in knowledge-sharing activities and organize workshops to combat and trace illegal fleet vessels entering the region and checking other illegal activities. They should put a limit to the number of times a foreign and domestic fishing vessel could enter the ocean as this will help to bring the catch within sustainable limits.
  • Eliminate Destructive Farming Practices: The IORA member states need to commit themselves to proper management of fisheries and marine ecosystems by eliminating destructive fishing practices and establish proper mechanisms to check overfishing and overexploitation of marine resources. The use of destructive gears such as minimum mesh sizes[xvii] must be avoided as it may result in disrupting the reproduction cycle of fish and thus lead to loss of productivity and resilience.
  • Encourage greater Cooperation: The IORA countries need to work collectively to enhance preparedness to deal with extreme events like climate change and ocean-based disasters. The establishment of industries near the sea-shore must not be allowed and the release of toxins into the water body must be avoided to safeguard the marine ecosystem.
  • Provide Technical and Financial Assistance: It is essential for the IORA countries to cooperate and provide technical and financial assistance to workers in the fisheries sector and develop strategies to fill the data gaps regarding supply capacity of the resources in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. A robust data collection mechanism will help the governments and international fisheries associations to devise approaches and policies effectively and take policy actions correctly.

Preety Bhogal is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and can be contacted at This article was published in the Diplomatist magazine in September 2015.The views expressed in the article are personal.


[ii]FAO (2014) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

[iii]FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Statistics, Global Production Database. The global production figure does not include aquatic plants.

[iv]FAO (2011) Review of the State of World Marine Fishery Resources. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

[v] FAO (2011) Review of the State of World Marine Fishery Resources. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

[vi]IORA Members include – Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

[vii]The Diplomatist, 24th August 2012. Accessible at – Last accessed on 18th July 2015.

[viii] FAO (2014) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

[ix]The figures in the parentheses indicate share of respective countries’ exports to total exports from IOR region. These are based on author’s own calculations on the basis of data compiled from FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture statistics.

[x] FAO (2014) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

[xi]Asche, Frank (2011), ‘Green Growth in Fisheries and Aquaculture Production and Trade’, Contribution to OECD Synthesis Report on Green Growth, Pg-8

[xii] CPUE is measured as kilograms of fish caught in one hour of fishing

[xiii] Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF 2015), ‘Pirates and Slaves: How Overfishing in Thailand Fuels Human Trafficking and the Plundering of Our Oceans’ Pg-8,  ‘ The Master Plan Marine Fisheries Management of Thailand’, 2008, Department of Fisheries,  Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperative, Pg- 11

[xiv]Laipson, Allen and Amit Pandya (2009), ‘The Indian Ocean: Resources and Governance Challenges’, The Henry L. Stimson Center, Pg- 9

[xv]BOD is a measure of quantity of dissolved oxygen used by the microorganisms in decomposing of waste substances in the water bodies.

[xvi] Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF 2015), ‘Pirates and Slaves: How Overfishing in Thailand Fuels Human Trafficking and the Plundering of Our Oceans’ Pg-20

[xvii] FAO (2014) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

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