The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world. Encompassing the body of water between Africa, the Southern Ocean, Asia and Australia, it provides the earliest evidence of human adaptation to the marine environment. The Indian Ocean, after the Pacific, accounts for the largest number of commercial marine species and for the largest share of full-time fishers' population in the world. The region has the largest small-scale, artisanal fisheries in the world. The wide variety of craft-gear combinations employed to catch hundreds of marine species is the hallmark of the region. Fish is a culturally important food as well as a source of employment, income and foreign exchange. The IOR produces significant quantities of fish, both for the domestic and the export markets.

Tuna and tuna-like species form the bulk of fish production in the Indian Ocean with about 19 species contributing to about 20 per cent of the total fish catch. According to the FAO, a quarter of the world's tuna production is from the Indian Ocean and its adjacent seas. Half the catch is believed to come from the artisanal and small-scale fisheries, while in other oceans most of the tuna catches are netted by industrial vessels. The region also produces large quantities of shrimp and cephalopods. While species like tuna, shrimp and cephalopods are mainly exported accounting for an important source of foreign exchange, smaller pelagics, that account for the largest bulk of production, are, in general, locally consumed and are the most important source of vital nutrition for the poor.

Between 1950 and 1998 the population of the IOR doubled from less than one billion to two billion. Over the same period marine fish production increased eight-fold-from less than one million tonnes to about 8 million tonnes. It is significant that while the Indian Ocean population remained at 40 per cent of the world total during this period, the share of Indian Ocean marine fish catch to the world catch increased from under five per cent to about 10 per cent. The potential of the fishery to contribute to the overall well being of the IOR is therefore well evident.

Despite this significant increase in fish production, the open access nature of the marine fishing ground has led to the overexploitation of fisheries resources within three nautical miles in almost all IOR countries. However, according to the FAO, while most of the fishing areas in the world have reached their maximum potential for capture fisheries production, there is still potential for production increases in the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean, in waters beyond the littoral sea. There is therefore a need to ensure that the Indian Ocean does not follow the example of other ocean areas with respect to poor resource conservation and management. This implies improvements in international agreements, better quality monitoring and control supported by improvements in the quality of data and compatible institutional arrangements at the national and regional levels.

From a human development point of view, the Indian Ocean has the largest number of people living below the income poverty line of $1 a day. Madagascar, Mozambique, Kenya, India and Bangladesh, for example, have significant shares of their total population living below this line. Judged against the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme, the most disadvantaged countries in the region are Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, Yemen, and Bangladesh.