Promotion of Sustainable and Equitable Fisheries Access Agreements in the Western Indian Ocean
Fisheries play an important role for the countries in the region, as a major contributor to food supplies and rural employment in foreshore areas, and as a significant foreign exchange earner. In general, the sector plays an important role in the economy of coastal areas, where alternative sources of employment and food supply are often quite limited. It is also important to note that for the Island states, catches of tuna are even more important and steadily increasing. A great majority of fisher folks in this region are in the small-scale artisanal sector, often using a diverse range of small craft-gear combinations for fishing. A significant proportion of this population lives in poverty, and from environmental and socioeconomic points of view, they are among the most vulnerable group in the WIO countries.
On the other hand, the commercial and industrial fishers, commonly represented by distant water fishing nations, harvest the fisheries resources through bilateral and multilateral fishing agreements. These Agreements became necessary after many Coastal States established Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Although the zones cover only 35% of the total area of the seas, they contain 90% of the world’s fish stocks.
It is important to note that relations between coastal countries in the region and fishing fleets from non-adjacent countries changed radically with the onset of the "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea" in 1982. This convention enabled the coastal countries to protect their fishing resources by recognizing the right of these states to determine how their waters were to be exploited. The convention also provided a legal basis and economic motivation for the negotiation of access agreements between Coastal States and distant water fishing fleets. Thus, legally, fisheries stocks came under the control of the respective countries closest to them. Therefore, fishing fleets, which had traditionally fished in these waters, no longer had access. In order to regain fishing access to those traditional fishing areas and extend it to new areas, the non-adjacent countries concluded Fishing Agreements with the coastal countries concerned.
In effect, the declaration of EEZs gave all coastal states the option to either harvest the fish themselves or allow foreign vessels to harvest the same.