The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is the third largest of the world’s oceans and is fed by major rivers including the Zambezi, Shatt al-Arab, Indus, Godavari, Krishna, Narmada, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Jubba and Irrawaddy.

Home to 2 billion people, populations of coastal states on the Indian Ocean Rim are increasing and there are widespread issues of overexploitation of marine resources, pollution and rapid coastal development.

The Indian Ocean’s future is uncertain and it remains one of the least protected oceans on the planet. It is one of the few places where exploitation of marine living resources is still growing (FAO, 2016). Awareness of harm being done to marine ecosystems, the services they provide to local people and the damage to biodiversity are low in many coastal states in the region. Added pressures come from international fishing fleets and even a rush to explore and exploit newly-recognized mineral resources on the deep-sea floor. The Central Indian Basin, for example, is rich in nickel, copper, cobalt and potentially rare-earth minerals. 

In 2014, Indian Ocean nations identified the development of the Blue Economy as the top priority for generating employment, food security, poverty alleviation, and ensuring sustainability. It carries half of the world's container ships, one third of the world's bulk cargo traffic and two thirds of the world's oil shipments. It is a lifeline of international trade and transport. The sustainable development of the Blue Economy goes hand-in-hand with catalysing the sustainable governance of the Indian Ocean.

Through Mission II, Nekton will combine four areas to drive a sustainable future for the Indian Ocean.

  1. Enhance knowledge: The Indian Ocean was described by Behrman (1981) as the “Forlorn Ocean”, a region neglected by science up to the late-1950s. From 1959-1965 a multilateral programme, the International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIEO), was launched and coordinated by the Scientific Committee for Ocean Research (SCOR), and focused on the Arabian Sea, the area to the north west of Australia and the waters over the continental slopes of coastal states in the region. Subsequently several large-scale international oceanographic programmes have included significant components in the Indian Ocean, and were focused on physical oceanographic measurements and biogeochemistry. The biology of the deep Indian Ocean outside of the Arabian Sea is particularly poorly understood given the presence of globally significant areas of mesophotic reefs, seamounts, submarine plateaus, continental and island slopes. Seamounts of the Indian Ocean are perhaps the least explored globally (Demopoulos et al., 2003). The Indian Ocean remains home to a spectacular diversity of marine life including some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world.
  2. Support governance: States within the Indian Ocean region have recognised both the need for better management of the oceans and the development of their blue economies (e.g. Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and India). However, the social and economic pressures to develop economies has also led to unsustainable exploitation of the marine resources of the region, even leading to tensions between states (e.g. India and Sri Lanka). In many cases there is a low level of awareness of the richness of marine ecosystems within the region, their current state and future potential. There are only six organisations with governance responsibilities across the Indian Ocean. Of these, only the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has a mandate that focuses primarily on conserving the marine environment and none are able to create legally binding measures for ecosystems management.  As is the case across the world’s oceans, current governance arrangements for the Indian Ocean are fragmented and insufficient to meet the needs of sustainably managing the ocean in a holistic way. A global approach to ocean management is currently being discussed as part of a new implementing agreement for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea related to Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). It is being proposed that a new entity sets the targets for a global network of Area-Based Conservation Measures (ABCMs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) with oversight of regional bodies charged with implementing these. All parties agree that the establishment of spatial conservation measures should be on the basis of the best scientific information where scientific survey data is critical. A regional organization is required to provide regional coordination and leadership and serve to accelerate the sustainable governance of the Indian Ocean.
  3. Develop capacity: Capacity development has been identified by the International Indian Ocean Expedition 2 (IIOE-2) and the United Nations as a key requirement to accelerate the sustainable governance and sustainable development of the Indian Ocean including the implementation of new Area-Based Conservation Measures (ABCMs), Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and environmental impact assessments (EIAs). A critical need for the Indian Ocean region is increased human capacity for ocean management. This includes both scientific capacity and capacity in terms of policymakers and managers who are ocean literate and fully versed in the use of scientific data, marine policy and law.
  4. Create engagement: We need an inspiring new story to engage the newsrooms, boardrooms and classrooms of the Indian Ocean to embrace the opportunities and confront the challenges ahead.

More than ever, people in the region are dependent on a healthy ocean and therefore there is an overwhelming need for a greater understanding of the Indian Ocean system. This knowledge is particularly important to ensure that current and future human activities in the region are sustainable. Alongside this requirement for new information there is a pressing need for the development of the human resources to allow coastal states around the Indian Ocean to manage the ocean for themselves.


Amanda WJ Demopoulos, Craig R. Smith, Paul A. Tyler (2003). The deep Indian Ocean floor. Ecosystems of the World, 219-238.

D Behrman D (1981) Assault on the Largest Unknown: The International Indian Ocean Expedition 1959-1965. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris, 96 pp.