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common dolphinfish—better known as mahi mahi or dorado
The common dolphinfish—better known as mahi mahi or dorado—is among the species that have fallen through the cracks of Indian Ocean fishing regulations. Photo by Juan Vilata/Alamy Stock Photo

Unregulated Swaths of the Indian Ocean Are Leaving Species Vulnerable to Overfishing

In the absence of adequate oversight, fishing fleets are exploiting international waters in the Indian Ocean.

Authored by

by Kimberly Riskas

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In the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean high seas, fishing fleets have been exploiting areas that are unprotected by international law. The result is soaring catches, and almost no oversight. Squid fishing has grown by an incredible 830 percent since 2015, while many species, including sharks, dolphins, whales, and porpoises, see little, if any, legal protection.

That is the takeaway from a new report by Trygg Mat Tracking and the World Wide Fund for Nature, which demonstrates how regulatory gaps in the Indian Ocean are exposing these and other species to overfishing.

The Indian Ocean supplies nearly 15 percent of all wild-caught seafood, and fisheries in the basin are among the most productive in the world. Yet one-third of Indian Ocean fish stocks are being exploited beyond sustainable levels—a trend exacerbated by high levels of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the region. Within the breadth of IUU fishing, it is unregulated activity—which occurs in areas where no laws are in place to govern fishing activity—that usually receives the least attention from policymakers, says Duncan Copeland, executive director at Trygg Mat Tracking.

Creating new laws to manage fisheries in international waters requires support from the nations that fish there—not an easy undertaking given their often competing economic interests, says Copeland. “In the Indian Ocean, the only species group that countries have been able to agree on are the tuna and tuna-like species,” he says.

Worth over US $6.5-billion each year, tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean is regulated by two regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). Another RFMO, the Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA), is tasked with protecting a broad range of non-tuna species on the high seas, but its boundaries fall short of covering the entire Indian Ocean.

It is in these unprotected pockets that rampant exploitation could hurt ecosystems and livelihoods, says Copeland. “Squid forms a very important part of the food chain, particularly the tuna food chain, and tuna are a crucial resource for many people in coastal island states.”

After analyzing location data broadcast by the onboard automatic identification systems of ships spotted fishing in these high seas gaps, Copeland and his colleagues linked many of these marauding vessels—which are predominately Chinese-flagged—to unregulated fishing sites in other oceans, such as the infamous hotspot in the Pacific off North Korea.

While the sharp jump in squid fishing is cause for concern, the researchers stress that the lack of high seas regulation spells trouble for a number of species, including many that are not currently monitored by any RFMO.

To protect non-tuna species and their ecosystems from overfishing, the researchers recommend extending SIOFA’s jurisdiction to cover the unregulated zones, and to instate more comprehensive conservation and reporting regulations. Sharks, for instance, are not monitored or protected by any Indian Ocean RFMO, while dolphins, whales, and porpoises have little oversight, despite decades of unsustainable by-catch in gill net fisheries.

Copeland says conservation measures, such as requiring by-catch reporting, should be standardized across RFMOs, and countries that import seafood should ensure that their products are coming from legal, regulated fisheries. Better fishery monitoring, data sharing, and regional coordination are also needed, he adds, but those measures rely on individual countries getting their fleets to comply.

Though the report highlights the ineffectiveness of current fisheries management, Kristina Gjerde, the senior high seas policy advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, who was not involved in the report, says its recommendations still don’t go far enough to protect the high seas. Recent research, she says, shows that many RFMOs around the world are performing poorly when it comes to sustainable fishing, observer coverage, and ecosystem-based management.

Regulating the high seas will have ripple effects for biodiversity, livelihoods, and the food we eat. “These areas of the high seas may feel very far away from coastal states and local fisheries, but they’re not,” says Copeland.

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