by Assad Bhuglah
Blessed with a vast maritime zone of 2.3 million km², Mauritius has now expanded its ocean territory by signing an agreement with Seychelles for exercising joint jurisdiction over an additional area of 396,000 km² of the continental shelf of the Mascarene Plateau region. The two countries are determined to harness the power of the blue economy with a view to enhance the economic, social and cultural well-being of the present and future generations. Given that 99% of the ocean remains unprotected according to a Greenpeace source, the nations that have sovereign rights over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) must undertake constant patrol to exercise their authority and take effective possession of the territorial sea.

While the Indian Ocean represents immense potential for the two countries, the key challenge is to work out a legal framework and a coordinating mechanism to prevent the plunder and destruction of marine resources. Ensuring conservation and sustainable management of the maritime zone constitutes the backbone of the blue economy on which thousands of people depend for their jobs, livelihoods and well-being. This joint venture becomes more challenging in the wake of growing threats of piracy, illegal fishing, marine pollution and sea-rise level. Evidently, this will require fisheries patrols and maritime surveillance of the economic zone not only to protect the fishermen and sailors at sea but also to provide security to marine research activities and the sea-trade routes. The patrolling exercise is not just a matter of operating patrol boats manned with coast-guards or police force but includes a host of ancillary activities such as technical management, maintenance and repair, bunkering, replenishing and refueling, provision of satellite images, transmission of information to fishing vessels, sharing of intelligence, armed intervention, air cover and enforcement of immigration laws. It is indeed a complex operation that requires robust coordination at all stages with all the stakeholders: government ministries, fishery agencies, ship registry, ship agencies, ship owners, sea-farers, coast guards, marine police, navy, port authorities, custom department and the regional focal points. Indeed, the patrolling exercise is a tall order for the two small island states and they should imperatively look for a larger regional collaboration.

The five member-states of the Indian Ocean Commission have a history of patrolling experience through the implementation of the Regional Plan for Fisheries Surveillance (2007-2011) which aimed at eliminating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the exclusive economic zones. Patrol boats, aircraft, satellites and fisheries monitoring centers were mobilized to enable fisheries inspectors to carry out their missions in the region. Due to the growing scourge of piracy, the IOC States redoubled their regional coordinating efforts in increasing global presence at sea to prevent attacks on fishing vessels.

Regional maritime security has a larger ramification that warrants close collaboration of not only the IOC States but all the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. In January 2009, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) called for the adoption of Djibouti Code of Conduct in order to create a regional maritime security framework within which 21 states in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden combine their efforts to counter piracy and armed robbery against ships. This regional coordination mechanism is based on 4 pillars: information sharing, national legislation update, regional training and capacity building. The following countries are eligible to join the Djibouti Code of Conduct: Comores, Mauritius, Maldives, Kenya, Seychelles, Somalia (North, South and Central), South Africa, Reunion (France), Comoros, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Jordan, Oman, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen and Ethiopia. So far 19 countries, including Mauritius and Seychelles, have already signed this code. Mozambique and Reunion (France) are the only two countries that have not yet done so as at now.

The Djibouti Code of Conduct is a tacit recognition of the importance of the blue economy which is vital for the development and growth for almost half of Africa’s population. The spread of piracy in the Indian Ocean, therefore, threatens the potential for investment and growth in the region. The coordinated efforts to ensure preventive and deterrent action should remain a high priority on the security agenda of the Indian Ocean States.

For Mauritius to invest massively in deep-sea fishing, sea-industry, research expeditions and harvesting of marine resources, the prevalence of maritime security is a sine qua non condition. This goes in parallel with investment in training, capacity-building, acquisition of software, hardwares, laboratory equipment and sophisticated vessels as well as implementation of a comprehensive research and development programme focused on blue economy.