Challenges and opportunities for ocean resource management

26 October 2017 12:45 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


BY Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage

The world oceans play an important role in the sustenance of the planet earth and human kind.   Humans have been using the oceans for various purposes; as a source of food, to travel and explore and to trade and acquire wealth.  

The oceans balance the eco system on land to a greater extent.  Over the years people have come to understand the potential and dynamic behavior of the oceans and also the need to maintain the balance of the oceans.  In the 21st century, we experience extreme drought and devastating hurricanes and floods, like in the case of category five Hurricane ‘Irma’, which devastated the southern part of the United States in September 2017.  The ocean is vast and well over 70 percent of planet earth is covered with oceans containing 97 percent of earth’s water (UN SDG 14,2016).  The ocean is the largest absorber of Carbon dioxide.  The ocean winds regulate and cool the climate.  The ocean currents regulate the marine eco system and nutrients that promotes the growth of ocean vegetation, planktons and the fish species, and millions of other life forms beneath the surface, beyond the vision of the humankind.  

Ocean resources and opportunities

As per Dr. Terney, 95 percent of the underwater world remains unexploited (Terney, 2017). This is a clear indication of the hidden, unknown potential of the ocean. The ocean is the major mode of transportation for 90 percent of goods. International maritime trade is the life line of the world; for goods or energy. As per the UN SDG 14, oceans serve as the largest source of protein, with more than 3 billion people are depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein and over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods (UN SDG 14,2016). More than half of the world population live within 100 kilometers off the coast. Marine ecosystems are among the largest of earth’s aquatic systems. They include oceans, salt marsh, inter-tidal ecology, estuaries and lagoons, mangroves and coral reefs. Coastal habitats alone account for approximately one third of all marine biological productivity. 

Physical factors that determine the distribution of marine ecosystems are salinity, geology, temperature, tides, light availability and geography. Deep sea eco systems are largely undiscovered and covers nearly 62 percent the globe (Terney,2017). This area may contain more than 10 million unknown species. The ocean is also a medium for leisure; whether it is coastal tourism, fishing, diving or cruise industry. They thrive mainly on the beauty of the ocean, Beaches and coral reefs. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is rich in marine resources. 

Many rivers and tributaries have deposited large quantities of sediments and nourished the sea bed for thousands of years. Possibility exists for discovery of hydrocarbons, and natural gas and sea-bed minerals. Dharmarathna has indicated that sea-bed heavy minerals such as gem minerals, Ilmenite, Rutile, Zircon, Monazite, Manganese nodules, Phosphates nodules and crude oil and gas should be available in commercially viable exploitation quantities in the IOR (Dharmarathna, 2017). These marine resources are critically important to the sustenance and economic progress of the IOR. 

Management of the oceans

The ocean is considered highly dynamic in time and space. The oceans have changed and are continuing to change, mainly due to climate change and human-made pollution. Presence of multitude of actors such as state players, law enforcement agencies, researchers, exploiters, smugglers of humans, narcotics and guns, IUU fishers and tourists complicate ocean management. However, the oceans need to be managed. There is a need to look beyond state jurisdictions of territorial and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and to treat oceans as a maritime common. Since the oceans are dynamic, management of it also should be dynamic. Static management practices can only be implemented in fixed locations such as oil rigs, coral reefs etc. It is necessary to study and research about critical marine habitats and threatened species. This region’s regulatory framework should be catering to dynamic ocean management by using technology as a tool. Stakeholder’s collaboration and cooperation is a key component in dynamic ocean management. Coastal and marine issues are politically and technically complex as there will be many interests and perceptions. Hence, human-marine management will need to combine a sound knowledge in natural and social sciences. Moreover, there will be a requirement to enhance capabilities of governmental agencies which are required to maintain a rule based maritime order and other institutions dealing with the ocean research. 

The world’s ocean under threat: Challenges to oceans, global warming and climate change
There is no doubt that the world oceans are under an unprecedented level of pressure from human activities and commercial exploitation. Human commercial activities would include fisheries, shipping, marine culture, and extraction of minerals, natural gas and oil. 

The impact from these activities is compounded by climate change, pollution and invasive species (Halpern, 2008).  The Guardian international edition of 24th August 2017 reported that a Russian tanker has travelled through the northern sea route in record speed and without an icebreaker escort for the first time, highlighting how climate change is opening up the high Arctic (The Guardian, 2017). The same article reported that the extent of the arctic ice fell to a new wintertime low in March this year after freakishly high temperatures in the polar regions, and hit its second lowest summer extent last September. This may be good news for maritime trade as less fuel will be consumed by the shipping. But it is a clear indicator that climate change and global warming is real and it is now physically visible and even if we stop producing greenhouse gasses it is unlikely that the process will be reversed. The possible impacts of these could be sea level rising, changes in hydrodynamics, changes in ocean temperatures and salinity, water quality deterioration and ocean weather anomalies(Terney, 2017).

Human-made pollution

Earlier, it was assumed that the ocean is vast and deep and can absorb any amount of garbage dumped into it. Humans have been polluting the oceans for centuries and now it has accelerated, mainly due to industrialization and lack of understanding and disrespect for ocean health by governments and people. Oil spills, dumping of toxic wastes, and plastics have contributed immensely to deteriorating health of oceans. Polluting oceans basically begin on land. As per a report produced by the National oceanic and atmospheric administrative service of United States Department of Commerce, 80 percent of pollution to marine environment comes from the land (2017).

Land-based pollutants can come from agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide), urbanization (disposal sewage and solid waste) industries (effluents and solid waste discharge), dirt, aquaculture projects, oil from motor vehicles etc. Thousands of tons plastic is dumped into the ocean on a daily basis. Plastic is one of the most dangerous pollutants found in the ocean. 

It is harmful for the environment as it does not breakdown easily and often it is considered as food by marine animals. Trash and waste dumped into the ocean can be washed up hundreds of miles away. Dumping of toxic waste, chemical waste and radioactive waste are also heavy contributors to ocean pollution. Chemicals can enter the ocean through various industries, as well as accidents. All these pollutants can kill large numbers of sea creatures and birds and impact the entire marine eco system. It can impact the reproduction cycle of the marine animals and behavioural changes, finally causing death. This has led to a gradual loss in marine life and an increase in the number of endangered species. Littering causes pollution in the ocean, which also causes a substantial loss of life beneath the seas. Disposal of untreated or under-treated sewage is a major polluting factor of the ocean. Sewage leads to the decomposition of organic matter that in turn leads to a change in biodiversity. This can lead to changes to the marine ecosystem in a harmful manner. Land based agriculture is another contributor to ocean pollution as chemicals and fertilizer wash off to the ocean and could help rapid increase of algae, which deplete the oxygen content of the water and impact marine life and its survival. Marine animals, specially the smaller ones, can absorb these chemicals as part of their food and then enter the larger marine animals through the food chain. When people eat fish, the chemicals enter them and could lead to terminal diseases such as cancer.  Garbage such as plastic and aluminum dumped into the sea can end up in a coastal area and would negatively impact the coastal communities and their livelihood and also coastal tourism.Even air pollution can impact the oceans. Dirt and other particles from air pollution can settle on the ocean surface and add to pollution. We cannot assume that the garbage and other forms of pollutants humankind dump into this vast, deep ocean would dilute and disappear. On the contrary, these pollutants come back to the humans through the food chain, which is sometimes even life threatening (Conserve Energy Future, 2017). Correcting harmful effects of human made pollution of the oceans will be costly. The UN SDG 14 indicates that as much as 40% of world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats (UN SDG14,2016).There can be ocean based pollution too. These includes ships accidents (oil and hazardous matter), Explorations (Oil and Suspended matter) and Dumping(Oil and Garbage)(Terney,2017). 

Noise pollution

Marine life is always disturbed and threatened by a combination of industrial noise, mainly from shipping, seismic exploration and use of air gun and naval sonar. Marine scientist and bioacoustics expert Clark term this phenomenon as ‘acoustical bleaching’ of the oceans, a human-made cacophony that can tear apart the social networks of whales, adversely affecting survival and reproductive success (Schiffman, 2016). Whale feeding grounds and migratory routes are then disturbed and they lose breeding opportunity and choices. Further these loud noises can impact the communication ability of marine mammals which are capable of echolocation. The sound from seismic air gun explosions, which are mainly used in oil and gas explorations travels through the ocean and it changes from a big bang into a big fuzzy ball of reverberating noise. These bubbles produce a pressure that expand and contract, generating an immense amount of acoustic energy. The energy from all these explosions fills the ocean with noise (Schiffman, 2016). The exact impact of this noise pollution is not fully known and only came to attention in the recent decades. But the good news, says Clark, is that technologies are being developed to drastically reduce the noise from ships and geological surveying. The technological advances may produce quieter ships which is a main attributor to noise pollution. There should be controls of the locations, duration and for number of seismic air guns used in explorations.

New industries and polluting the ocean

The population of the world in general is growing. However, the land area available for humans is rapidly decreasing due to various reasons. Further the economic conditions of the masses are also improving. This situation will require the world to extract more resources from the ocean, produce more and trade more. Therefore, industrial activities in the ocean will increase with new industries such as renewable energy, sea bed mining, blue bio-technology, blue technology and remediation and restoration of the ocean. All these activities will add more pollutants to the oceans, unless strict regulatory measures are not implemented. 

Maritime security implications

With the increase demand for trade and exploitation of resources from the ocean, there will be many stake holders in this domain. There will be a large number of stake holders, both from the governmental as well as non-governmental side. This additional activity in the ocean will contribute to maritime security issues as well. There is a need to understand the need for new economic activity in the ocean and the resulting security implications. Whilst the harnessing ocean resources will capture prospects and promises, security will be required to understand the risks and vulnerabilities and counter-action to mitigate or deter these threats. There will be traditional security threats emanating from state vs state rivalry and non-traditional threats coming from transnational maritime crime and other nefarious activities committed mainly by non-state actors. Hence the ocean governance and maintaining rule based maritime order is essential. Economic growth, ocean health and sustainability need to be balanced with maritime security implications. Activities in the oceans cannot be sustained unless there is security. Security will be paramount for ensuring that stake holders abide by various regimes and protocols concerning ocean health. A single naval power would not suffice to maintain rule of law in the ocean space. Collaborative and combined efforts of bilateral, multilateral, regional and international mechanisms will be needed to achieve the desired end state. 

SAGAR and way ahead for sustainable ocean exploitation

The Ocean is the future of the Indian Ocean Region(IOR). Ocean divides us but also act as a connector. Countries with more effective technical and financial capacity will be able to harvest ocean resources better and make economic progress. However, whether this will take place in a sustainable manner is the question. Marine resources are not only found in territorial waters of states but in the areas beyond national jurisdiction too. This is a global common and need to be protected. It is true that United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provide the basic framework for ocean governance and resource exploitation. But the need is to go further. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14; ‘Life below water’ can be a useful vehicle to carry forward the agenda in the IOR. But it may not be sufficient to address today’s dynamic situations in the oceans. Organizations such as Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Indian Ocean naval Symposium (IONS) and Galle Dialogue should focus more on understanding the potential of marine resource utilization and opportunities and challenges and especially dangers of unsustainable exploitation and manmade pollution, which are detrimental to the ocean life. The IORA’s ‘Jakarta Accord’ of May 2017, specially focuses on sustainable exploitation of ocean resources as a driver of inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development for the IOR and underscores the importance of regional synergies and cooperation to promote peace, stability and prosperity (Jakarta Accord, 2017). 

SAGAR, which means Security And Growth for All in the Region, could be considered as a suitable platform to create a healthy discussion and come up with a plan of action to sustainably exploit the ocean resources in theIOR, in support of ‘Jakarta Concord’. The IOR is in need of a network of political and economic maritime partnership to strengthen regional framework to be an effective platform.  It is strongly recommended to establish an expert committee under SAGAR, representing various stake holders to study and discuss the issue of ocean resources and sustainable exploitation, and to come up with a legally binding multi-lateral framework. This is the need of the hour and the people of the IOR do not have the luxury of waiting and taking no action on this critical issue. 

Recommendations for ocean resource management

Following recommendations are made for effective ocean management in the immediate future with a view to protect the health of oceans for long-term sustainable exploitation; 


  • Prevention and significantly reducing all kinds of marine pollution from all platforms at sea and specially from land-based activities including marine debris and nutrient pollution. 


  • Sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts. Take actions for restoration of the coastal areas and vegetation including mangroves in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans
  • Minimize and address the impact of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels. Minimize dumping of industrial waste and other form of discharges to the ocean.


  • Effectively regulate harvesting and overfishing, IIU fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans. Restore fish stocks to a level which can produce maximum sustainable yield. 
  • Ban selling of IUU fishing and compel markets not to sell those IUU products.
  • Conservation of at least a certain percentage of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on available scientific information. 
  • Increase economic benefits to small island developing states and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.
  • Increases scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology, in order to improve ocean and coastal health and to enhance contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries. 
  • Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS, which provides legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources.




 (The writer is a Director of Center for Indo-Lanka Initiatives, the Pathfinder Foundation, Sri Lanka. He could be contacted on:

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