A WCS United Nations Ocean Conference Blog

Protecting the Western Indian Ocean’s Fantastic Biodiversity

Coastal fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean are essential elements of national economies and furnish critical sources of protein and income to many millions of people. Photo ©WCS Madagascar.

By Alison Clausen
June 9, 2017

The Western Indian Ocean (WIO) is a socially and biologically diverse region that is second only to the Coral Triangle in the Pacific in terms of marine and coastal biodiversity. Along the 9,000 kilometer coastline are some of the world’s most resilient coral reef systems, and extensive stands of mangroves.

The region is also a global hotspot for shark and ray biodiversity: At least 211 species are currently known to be found in the region — nearly a quarter of all shark and ray species globally — 56 species are endemic and it is likely that many species remain undescribed. While approximately 25 percent of known shark and ray species in the region are threatened by targeted and incidental fishing, a recent study found that small improvements to MPA coverage in the region would have significant benefits for shark and ray conservation.

The use of the Western Indian Ocean and its resources is expanding faster than at any time in the past. Photo: Emily Darling/WCS.

The region’s coastal fisheries are essential elements of national economies and furnish critical sources of protein and income to many millions of people, including numerous indigenous fishing communities, such as the Vezo in Madagascar, the Digo and Giriama in Kenya. It is estimated that seafood consumption by indigenous fishing communities is 15 percent higher than for non-indigenous communities, and that such consumption plays an essential role in public health through provision of protein and other micronutrients.

As is the case in much of mainland Africa, the WIO region (which to date has lagged behind other regions globally in terms of its economic development) is now on the cusp of a significant economic transformation driven by increased links to Asian markets and global demand for the continent’s as yet relatively intact natural resources.

While cultures based on fishing, maritime trade, and marine resource use go back centuries in the WIO, the use of the ocean and its resources is expanding faster than at any time in the past both because of international demand and fast growing populations in coastal areas. As a result, much of the region’s future economic development is likely to be driven by the exploitation of coastal and marine resources. Recent estimates put the value of the “gross marine product” of the Western Indian Ocean at USD 20.8 billion.

Approximately 25 percent of known shark and ray species in the region are threatened by targeted and incidental fishing. Photo ©WCS Madagascar.

Yet while this transformation could offer economic opportunities for local communities and generate the resources to protect biodiversity, it brings risks as well. Pressures on marine resources such as overfishing are growing, coastal and marine ecosystems are being degraded at an accelerating rate, and vulnerable human populations are becoming increasingly marginalized. A changing climate brings additional stresses to coastal areas.

Despite these expanding development pressures, the Western Indian Ocean’s ecosystems remain relatively intact. There is still a unique opportunity in this region to implement measures that contribute to equitable and sustainable development that will benefit both the region’s exceptional biodiversity and the 40 million people that live there.

Marine conservation has a long history in the WIO and the region is home to some of the oldest and largest marine protected areas in the world. WCS has been present in this region since the 1990s and has been a global leader in coral reef research and the development and application of models for community management of marine resources.

There is still a unique opportunity in the Western Indian Ocean to implement measures that contribute to equitable and sustainable development. Photo: Emily Darling/WCS.

Recognizing both the threats and the opportunities that exist, WCS has secured funding from a range of concerned partners including to embark on a process to support governments to create significant new marine protected areas (MPAs) in Madagascar, Kenya and Tanzania. These MPAs will build on past experiences and results of research in the region to make them smarter and more effective at conserving biodiversity than ever before.

The areas being investigated for the new MPAs include Antongil Bay, the Deep South Ecoregion and offshore habitats around Nosy Be that are all important for marine mammals in Madagascar; the Greater Pemba Channel in Tanzania; and offshore habitat in the Malindi-Watamu banks in Kenya.

These areas have been selected not only because of their exceptional biodiversity — including marine mammals, sharks and rays, mangroves, and coral ecosystems — but because of their capacity to be co-developed and co-managed with local communities so as to increase the ability of the natural resource base to continue to furnish essential ecosystems goods and services.

New marine protected areas (MPAs) are being co-developed and co-managed with local communities so as to increase the ability of the natural resource base to furnish essential ecosystems services. Photo ©WCS Madagascar.

They have also been selected because of their higher natural resilience to climate change. At a time when the international news for climate change at a political level is extremely bleak and where leading scientists have pronounced that it is now virtually impossible to limit global warming to less than 2°C, this criteria will become increasingly important as we choose natural areas to protect.

We embark on these efforts with both hope and optimism that with careful management based on sound science, a newly developing Western Indian Ocean can expand economic opportunities for the millions of people in the region while safeguarding globally-important marine resources.

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Alison Clausen is Regional Director for Madagascar and the Western Indian Ocean at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).