Battle to Control the Indian Ocean's 'Blue Gold'

Article excerpt

Tuna fishing is the economic backbone of a number of African countries situated around or in the Indian Ocean. But with the global demand for tuna ever rising, are these countries benefiting from their marine treasures or is the lion's share of the profits going to European Union industries? Wanjohi Kabukuru reports on the increasingly ugly row between the EU and the Indian Ocean-rim developing countries.

Seychelles President James Michel says: "In Seychelles, fishing is not just a pillar of our economy - it is a pillar of our community. Fisheries are not just a question of managing a resource. Fishing is about how we live. It is about how we interact with one another. It is also about how we see ourselves in this world. With the increasing demand for fish and fish products in most developed markets, our marine resources have the potential to truly be our 'Blue Gold'."

The Western Indian Ocean seaboard is a major global supplier of 'blue gold' - rich marine cuisine with tuna fish taking the top slot.

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But, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), worldwide tuna stocks are on the decline owing to the growing international demand. This has led to an increase in illegal, unregulated and unreported fisheries, posing serious threats to the rich tuna stocks in the Western Indian Ocean region. Of the Indian Ocean tuna, estimated to fetch a price $3bn, 80% is caught in the Western Indian Ocean region. And this is where a nasty diplomatic war is now raging.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as Seychelles, Comoros, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Mauritius have anchored their economic mainstays on fishing and tourism.

This diplomatic war pits the major European powers, Indian Ocean island nations and the coastal countries bordering the Indian Ocean against each other. That tuna fish is critical to the global fish trade is undisputed. The existence of the intergovernmental agency on tuna fish, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), headquartered in Victoria, Seychelles is a telling statement. The IOTC brings together the 28 nations to "manage tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian ocean and adjacent seas".

The IOTC is the direct inheritor of the work conducted under the Indo-Pacific Tuna Development and Management Programme (IPTP), which was set up in 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with funding from the UNDP and implementation by the FAO. Funded totally by member-country contributions, IPTP originally covered the Indian Ocean and extended slightly to the western Pacific. Later this was reduced and IPTP's mandate solely remained within the Indian Ocean waters.

For 15 years, IPTP set the tone for a more enhanced ocean agency, hence the rebranding, complete with managerial and supervisory powers, of the IOTC. The 28-member IOTC brings together Australia, Belize, Comoros, China, Eritrea, the European Union, France, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Korea, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, the UK and Vanuatu, while the Maldives, Senegal, South Africa and Uruguay, as at 18th March 2010, were termed as cooperating non-contracting parties.

Favourable tilt to EU?

Lately, however, the IOTC has come under criticism for what some of its members see as favouritism to the EU states. In February this year when the IOTC held its technical sessions in Nairobi, 16 member states protested the tuna quotas and preferential treatment given to the UK, France and Spain. The 16 protestor nations, which called themselves Like-Minded Coastal States, include Australia, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania and Thailand. These states were upset not just by the tuna-fishing quotas granted to the three major EU countries but also the failure to pass significant catch measures. …