Indo Pacific fish stocks face multiple challenges | Melbourne Asia Review

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Fish are a key food source for the population of the Indo-Pacific and fish stocks in the region are a very important part of global fishing supply chains. Keeping Indo-Pacific fish stocks sustainable is imperative.

The Indo-Pacific, as a phrase in diplomatic and security arenas, has no universally agreed definition. For example, according to the Republic of Korea, it covers the North Pacific Ocean, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Oceania and the African Coast of the Indian Ocean; and the USA regards it as covering the US Pacific Coastline to the Indian Ocean including Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands. Other nations have different definitions.

The population of the Indo-Pacific area is estimated to be approximately 60 percent of the world’s population. The Indian Ocean Rim Association notes that the Indian Ocean is home to nearly 2.7 billion people and approximately 60 million people are believed to live within 100 kilometres of the shoreline. Another analysis estimates that 77 percent of the population in Southeast Asia lives by the coast, equal to 523 million people. Additionally, according to the Pacific Community, the population of its 17 member states was 12.77 million in 2022 with 2.683 million people residing only one kilometre from the coast. In terms of fish production, the Indo-Pacific (consisting of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean (including Southeast Asia)) produced approximately 74 percent of the world’s 2020 marine capture production (58 million tons of fish). Large populations of people are a major driver of the decline of fish stocks due to demand for food. Economic activities causing pollution and other environmental damage put even more pressure on fish stocks. The conservation and protection of marine environments should be a priority for the future health and livelihoods of people in the Indo-Pacific.

The status of fish stocks

In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) noted that 65.3 percent of the assessed stocks in the Eastern Indian Ocean were fished sustainably, and 62.5 percent of the Western Indian Ocean were fished sustainably. Across six fishing areas of the Pacific Ocean, the FAO notes that on average 30.5 percent of fish stocks are at an unsustainable level, with the Southeast Pacific the most unsustainable (66.7 percent) and Northeast Pacific the most sustainable (only 13.8 percent of fish stocks at an unsustainable level). In Southeast Asia, 10 out of 15 stocks assessed by the FAO were classified as overfished or overfishing was occurring. The FAO concluded that ‘very few, if any, stocks were identified as underfished.

It’s important to note that the FAO regards the official catch data from the Indian Ocean region as ‘highly uncertain’ and ‘unreliable’. The FAO has not elaborated on why, but generally it is due to the absence of data. The high cost of fish stock assessment could be one of the related factors. In addition, FAO notes that in Southeast Asia ‘findings from stock assessments were, in general, not well connected to management decision making and action’. Good scientific evidence is the foundation of sustainable fisheries management and improving the quality of stock assessment should be a priority for States in the Indo-Pacific.

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is regarded as one of the world’s top maritime security threats, because it damages ecosystems, disadvantages legitimate fisheries and can be used for arms smuggling, drug running and human trafficking. The World Wildlife Fund states that the global fishing supply chain is complex and weakly regulated and illegal fish products are very difficult to detect.

No area of ocean within the Indo-Pacific region is spared from IUU fishing. The IUU Fishing Index scores the West Indian Ocean 2.39 and East Indian Ocean 2.34 (scale 1 (good) to 5 (worst)). The Asia Pacific Fisheries Commission (APFIC) estimates that illegal-fishing landings across the ‘APFIC area’ (excluding the South China Sea) in 2019 totalled 6.6 million tons with a value of USD 23.3 billion. A report by the World Wildlife Fund and Trygg Mat Tracking states that the expansion of vessels to unregulated squid fisheries alone expanded by 830 percent in five years (2015–2019) on the high seas of the Indian Ocean.

Distant water fishing has expanded over recent decades and often operates with opaque ownership structures and unclear or fabricated catch reports. Despite increased overfishing, in 2018 governments (mainly China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) provided more than USD 22 billion of ‘harmful’ subsidies that allowed vessels to travel farther, stay at sea longer and catch more fish.

Rising sea surface temperature and marine heatwaves

Climate change is a significant threat to fisheries resources. Ocean acidification, rising water temperature, alteration of hydrological systems, and ocean deoxygenation have a direct impact on fish stocks. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation, […] are expected to be irreversible on time scales relevant to human societies and ecosystems’.  Also, ‘unprecedented mass bleaching of coral reefs, an important habitat for fish, could occur across the Indo-Pacific throughout 2024’. Marine heatwaves (discrete ocean warming events) are also a problem causing the death of marine creatures, for example as reported last year in Thailand; Texas, USA; and Tasmania, Australia

Environmental crimes are a long-standing threat for the Indo-Pacific region. The South China Sea, known for its ‘tremendous diversity of natural ecosystems’, is rapidly degrading due to human activities such as harvesting endangered species, fishing with cyanide and dynamite, and building artificial islands. The cumulative impacts mean that many facets of marine ecosystems are on the verge of collapse.

There are no simple solutions

There are multiple challenges to restore and maintain Indo-Pacific fish stocks; and human population growth will keep the demand for fish high. To prevent the collapse of fish stocks and to avoid its devastating impacts on livelihoods, improvement of fisheries management in the Indo-Pacific is critical. It needs to start with better data collection which needs to result in more appropriate conservation and management measures. The Asia Pacific Fisheries Commission has stated that capacity building in fish stock assessment should be the focus for support in the Asia-Pacific region.

Fishing traceability schemes need to be implemented. The most recent fish traceability-like mechanism issued by the EU, ‘Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence’, is a good example, but the cost of implementing such schemes is too high for many developing and least developed countries, especially for small-scale fisheries which are common in the Indo-Pacific area and which play a huge role in global fish production. This highlights the importance of capacity building and technical support from developed countries to developing and least developing countries to build their fish harvesting and traceability systems to be consistent with applicable national, regional and international conservation and management measures.

In terms of better patrolling maritime domains, developing States often struggle with a lack of surveillance infrastructure and tools. Developed States could make a positive impact be providing assistance to developing States, such as the patrol vessels and supporting equipment recently provided by Japan to the Maldives and Indonesia.

Lastly, fish stocks would benefit from better international cooperation to combat maritime crimes. Existing regional mechanisms in the realm of enforcement such as ASEANAPOL should be improved to match the capacity of INTERPOL or EUROPOL in relation to providing assistance to its Member States. Also, the focus of regional initiatives, such as the ASEAN action plan to combat transnational organised crime, should be expanded to deal with environmental crimes in oceans.

Image: Seafood at a food market: Photo by William Warby/Pexels.

This article is part of the ‘Blue Security’ project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute, UNSW Canberra and the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D). Views expressed are solely of its author/s and not representative of the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government, or any collaboration partner country government. 


climate change fish stocks fish traceability Indo Pacific IUU fishing shipping supply chains