By Rashid Sumaila

The Indo-Pacific is made up of regions from the west coast of Canada and the U.S. to the Persian Gulf, including Japan, North and South Korea, Australia, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and China, India and other South Asian countries in the Indian Ocean Rim region. It is therefore home to many important ocean and fisheries countries, and some of the world’s biggest fishing grounds such as the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS). For the countries of the Indo-Pacific region, ocean fisheries provide gainful employment (Table 1), income and vital food and nutritional security to tens of millions of people, many of whom have limited employment opportunities elsewhere. The Pacific Ocean alone provides about half of the world’s total fish catch of between 100 and 130 million tonnes (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015; Pauly and Zeller, 2016). More specifically, the ECS support approximately 1.9 million people and 286,000 registered fishing vessels, majority of which are engaged in small-scale fisheries. It is worth noting that China accounts for ~94% of total ECS fishers & fishery workers. These numbers underscore the importance of the waters of the Indo-Pacific region to livelihoods, food security and wellbeing of civilians while at the same time highlighting the dangers of militarization.


Table 1: Number of people and vessels engaged in ECS fisheries.


No. of people

No. of vessels

% Vessels

GRT ≤ 10 

Reporting Year




















2010, 2015






It is clear that ocean fisheries in this region are a vital source of food and nutritional security for millions of people. They are also a source of economic security by generating tens of billions of dollars revenue a year, which translates into a couple of hundreds of billions of dollars in economic impact per year for the region. This economic impact supports the job security of tens of millions of people and performs a crucially important social function by keeping people busy earning their livelihoods. Ocean fisheries therefore provide peace and security not only to the Indo-Pacific region but the world by engaging millions of people in gainful employment and putting a lid on economic and social tensions and pressures. 


While the oceans are generating food, income and job security, fishing and other anthropogenic stressors put strain on marine ecosystems and fish stocks in the Indo-Pacfic. Stressors include (i) overfishing, which is widespread in the region, to the extent that the Food and Agricultural Organization of United Nations (FAO) estimates that ~30% of fish stocks in the Pacific Ocean are overfished while another 60% are fully fished; (ii) climate change, ocean acidity, sea-level rice and ocean deoxygenation are all impacting the distribution and productivity of fish stocks (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015); (iii) pollution, in general, and plastic pollution, in particular, are rampant, contaminating the water, the fish and eventually, people (Abbott and Sumaila 2019). These sources of stress on the ocean are a problem of ineffecive managament (Clark 1973, Munro, 1979, Sumaila, 2013).


The ECS fisheries, for example, are under intense fishing pressure with overexploitation present in all ECS countries since early 1980s. The amount of catch per unit of time and effort used to fish has dropped by a factor of 3 between 1960s and 1990s (Chen 1999). At the same time catch per unit of time and effort used to catch jellyfish increased by over 4 times in early 2000s, an indication that high value ‘old’ species (usually, high topic level species) are being depleted (Figure 1);


Figure 1: Declining mean trophic level in Chinese ECS fisheries (Liang and Pauly 2017).


The combination of the crucial importance of ocean fisheries to people, and the fact that fisheries are facing huge challenges and threats that already impact food security and livelihoods of tens of millions of people, can ultimately lead to instability in many Indo-Pacific countries, resulting in the disturbance of the peace and security of the entire world.


In what follows, I use the South China Sea fisheries to further elaborate on the themes raised above. Next, I present ideas on how to secure fisheries of the Indo-Pacific region. The goal is to bring forth recommendations to help ensure that fisheries of the Indo-Pacific region are rebuilt and sustained so that they can continue to support the peace and security of the region and the world.


The South China Sea covers an area of about 3.4 million km2 in the western Pacific Ocean. Its southern part lies on the Sunda Shelf and contains coral reefs in waters less than 200 m in depth. Further north, the SCS is home to basins with depths reaching almost 5,000 m. It includes over 200 islands and islets, and touches the coastlines of China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam (Figure 2). The SCS is biologically diverse but knowledge of its marine fauna is relatively incomplete. The most comprehensive list of marine fishes in the SCS lists 3,365 species in 263 families (Randall & Lim 2000),


Figure 2. Map of the South China Sea (SCS).

(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration 2013).


A total of 504 million tonnes of fish were taken from the SCS large marine ecosystems, between 1950 and 2014 (Sumaila, 2018). A good amount of this total catch was exported to other regions of the world and generated a total annual export value of USD $56 billion. Clearly, the food security, economic and social value of the fisheries of the SCS is huge (Sumaila, 2018). Figure 3 depicts the catch and revenue profiles of fish caught and sold from the SCSover time. We see that “peak catch and revenue” were reached with both of these important food security and economic activty indicators now declining.    


Figure 3: Profiles of catch and revenues. Source: Sumaila and Cheung (2015).

Of the 3.2 million fishing vessels operating in marine waters worldwide (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015), over half operate in the SCS alone (Sumaila, 2018). This is huge given that the catch from this large marine ecosystem is less than 50% of the global total catch (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015; Pauly and Zeller, 2016). This huge overcapacity is an indication of ineffective management as confirmed by the performance indicators presented in Sumaila (2018), which shows that the peak catch years for the SCS was in 2003. As expected, this overcapacity has, over the years, resulted in a drop in catch per unit effort by up to four times (Sumaila, 2018).


Figure 4: Jobs and vessels active in the South China Sea. Source: Sumaila and Cheung (2015).

The amount of catch, revenues, and number of jobs supported by the South China Sea (Figure 4) shows how crucial the waters of the Indo-Pacific region are to people of the region, and why militarizations of these waters comes at the huge cost to civilians and their wellbeing. Essentially, there are simply too many lives to put at risk.  


Public policies like subsidies and the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries compound the problems of ineffective management (Millazzo, 1998; Sumaila et al. 2010, Sumaila et al. 2006; Agnew et al. 2009). Both subsidies and unreported catches are issues for the South China Sea, with subsidy intensity, i.e., the percentage of subsidies that is landed value, of up to 31% in the SCS, and the proportion of unreported to reported catches of up to 50% in the case of the SCS (Sumaila, 2018).


If the picture painted above is allowed to continue unchecked, the SCS marine ecosystem and the fish they contain will continue to decline, with serious social and economic consequences that could lead to instability and insecurity. Clearly, the world cannot afford such instablity and therefore needs to find solutions to the threats facing the region.


Climate change is a major anthropogenic stressor currently impacting marine ecosystems (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015; Sumaila et al. 2019). Climate is resulting in shifts in the disribution of fish species, resulting in the decline of some local stocks (Cheung et al., 2008 ). Scientific projections suggest increasing stress on biodiversity and ecosystem services over the course of the 21st century if temperatures are not held below 2°C above pre-industrial levels (Gattuso et al., 2015). Warming, ocean acidification and de-oxygenation combined with other stresses could change primary productivity, growth and distribution of fish populations, resulting in changes in the potential yield of exploited marine species (Gattuso et al., 2015) as well as the economic (Sumaila et al., 2011; 2019) and social benefits they provide (Allison et al., 2009). The South China Sea is no exception to these global trends (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015) as it is both a big contributor to carbon emissions and at the receiving end of the negative impact of climate change.


Marine pollution is a significant issue because of the amount of marine debris entering the ocean each year. Plastic, oil spills, and other waste end up in the ocean and affect marine life and eventually people. Recently, the issue of plastic pollution has caught the attention of he world because of the sheer amount that enters the ocean. It is worth noting that most plastic enters the ocean from land-based sources, carried along by surface waters, wastewater and/or wind (Worm et al. 2017). Most plastic production originates from the developed world but much of the pollution stems from developing nations with a growing middle class, heavy coastal population density and poor waste management practices. Many of these are countries are found in the Indo-Pacific region. For instance, it have been estimated over 50% of estimated global plastic inflow in the ocean originates from just five nations: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka (Jambeck et al. 2015). For the world to succed in tackling the plastic pollution, the countries of the Indo-Pcific will have to be at the centre of a global effort.


For ocean fisheries to continue to protect the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region, cooperation is the rallying cry. We need cooperation within nations, between countries in a given region and throughout the international community. We also need cooperation between different sectors. Anyone who has studied the cooperative and non-cooperative management of environmental resources knows that in almost all cases, what is needed is cooperation amongst the relevant players, parties and stakeholders. But practitioners also know that this can be difficult.


In cooperation, countries can put measures in place like those presented below to address ineffective management and overfishing, climate change and marine pollution.

  • Overcome the ‘open access’ nature of fisheries of the Indo-China region. Implement more effective access to fishery resources at different levels, from the local to the national, and beyond in the case of shared, straddling stocks and high sea fisheries (Sumaila, 2012).
  • Countries of the Indo-Pacific region need to work with the global community via the World Trade Organization (WTO) to discipline subsidies. Since the WTO was given this mandate by the United Nations in 2001, there have been negotiations that are yet to yield results. Further talks are currently taking place at the WTO. It is generally agreed by many involved that this is the last chance for the world to come together and discipline harmful subsidies. In this, countries of the Indo-Pacific have a central role and responsibility.
  • Illegal, unregulated, unreported (IUU) fishing occurs in the waters of many countries of the Indo-Pacific region. To secure fisheries for the future, this must be curbed significantly. To help tackle the problem, economists have developed a framework to examine the motivation and drivers behind IUU fishing. The basic idea is that a vessel contemplating engaging in IUU fishing will undertake a subjective cost-benefit analysis. Countries of the Indo-Pacific can design policies and take joint actions to protect their waters from IUU fishers (see for instance, Sumaila, 2019).
  • To deal with the ever-increasing power of fishing gear and the inherent uncertainties in understanding the human and natural components of fisheries, there is a need to re-establish the natural protection afforded fish by establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). These would help provide the protection that has been lost because of technological progress (Pauly et al., 2002). MPAs would enable key stocks to recover, and provide insurance against assessment errors, which are acknowledged to be a common cause of collapse.
  • To increase the capacity of ocean fisheries to adapt to climate change, it is crucial to maintain more abundant populations. Solving the overfishing problem is fundamental to making marine systems robust and ready for changes that are already underway. Fish stocks will also be more robust to climate change if the combined stresses from overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution runoff, land-use transformation, competing aquatic resource uses and other anthropogenic factors are minimized (Sumaila et al., 2011). Governments and the private sector must be anticipatory, rather than reactive in developing plans for dealing with climate change (Sumaila et al., 2011). Given the global nature of climate change and the asymmetry in the distribution of cost and benefits of greenhouse gas emissions (Stern, 2006, Sumaila et al., 2019), it is important for the global community to work together to mitigate the pumping of greenhouse gases and develop comprehensive adaptation plans that work for small and large, developed and developing countries alike.
  • Given the diverse nature of marine pollution, there is no single approach to tackling the problem. Various economic and non-economic instruments have been suggested in the literature to help reduce or eliminate marine debris such as plastic pollution (Abbott and Sumaila 2019).

Ocean fisheries are crucial to the well-being of tens of millions of civilians in the Indo-Pacific region, and are, therefore, a major contributor to the peace, stability and security of not only the region but the world at large. However, stressors are threatening the ability of ocean fisheries to continue to provide these vital services to people but there are key ways to reduce these threats, which we outline in this contribution. Be that as it may, the countries of the Indo-Pacific region will need to cooperate extensively at various scales ranging from the local, to national, to regional and global scales in order for these suggestions to have any impact. Given the massive numbers of civilians that depend on the waters of the Indo-Pacific region, the governments of the region owe it to their civilian populations to desist from militarization of the waters of the region.


Rashid Sumaila is the Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit and the OceanCanada Partnership at the University of British Columbia R.SUMAILA@OCEANS.UBC.CA


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