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Adam Jadhav
October 19, 2012
The Indian Ocean is a dynamic and sensitive ecosystem that we put at risk each day. As we fish, mine and pollute, we surpass reasonable notions of sustainability. You don't need a Ph.D. in marine science to understand the realities of over-exploitation. Just ask those who eke out a living from oceans; they will tell you that once-abundant species are more difficult to find and our coasts are choked with pollution.

India has two million square kilometres of sea under its jurisdiction in what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Here it has the exclusive rights to economic benefits but also the specific responsibility for marine conservation. While we have made use of the former, we are sadly neglecting the latter.

Once upon a time, India had a wealth of marine biodiversity. We know that some of the world's most important and threatened species were found in India's EEZ. A confluence of oceanographic and climatologic forces made India's waters hyper-dynamic. Indian fisheries were among the most productive and complex on the planet.

I speak in the past tense because, unfortunately, we do not know as much as we should and we are uncertain of how up-to-date our knowledge is. Biodiversity sampling in India's waters is well below the levels of many other nations. The precise state of Indian fisheries is little understood beyond misleading aggregate studies. We lack knowledge of important ecosystem-level interactions among species, habitats and human impacts. We have few robust deep-sea ecology studies. Exploration of vulnerable but important undersea mountains has barely begun.

But there is room for hope. We have numerous scientific, policy and academic institutions that can be harnessed to better understand our seas. We have a strong civil society that can be brought to the table alongside government and commercial interests. Our local communities are awake and engaged. With the right political will and collaboration among stakeholders, India could improve marine conservation.

We know enough to act proactively, even while we study more. Publicly available data can help us designate critical areas for protection, conservation and sustainable management. Greenpeace India has published my review of public data along with a series of maps that outline exactly what we know. In the process, we identified several areas of high biodiversity potential that warrant immediate attention: the Gulfs of Kachchh, Khambat and Mannar; seagrass beds of Palk Bay; waters off the Sundarbans; large fishing grounds such as the Wadge Bank and small biodiverse areas such as Angria Bank; unique seamount ecosystems in the Laccadive Sea; and migration paths of already protected marine mammals and sea turtles beyond the continental shelf.

India can and should announce a new plan for marine conservation. Unless we move - and move quickly - to implement serious conservation and sustainable management of ocean resources, we may face the collapse of fisheries, the breakdown of important ecosystem services and a frightening nature-state shift.

Adam Jadhav is a researcher in global environment policy at American University, Washington

The views expressed by the author are personal