Growing Conflict Over Ocean Fisheries

Via World Politics Review, commentary on the growing threat of conflict over ocean fisheries:

Last month, a U.S. Coast Guard patrol vessel off the coast of Ecuador was forced to take evasive action when a Chinese fishing boat tried to ram it to avoid being boarded and inspected. The incident highlights the growing risk for conflict over fishing rights amid heightened geopolitical rivalry on the world’s oceans.

The stakes are high for people and nature: Countries that control and dominate the global supply of seafood hold power over the billions of people who are dependent on this protein for their food security. If we continue on the current trajectory, we will squander an opportunity to build a more ecologically sustainable world, with serious implications for coastal communities and countries worldwide, as well as for global security. Predicting where future clashes over “blue foods” might occur is key to avoiding them.

The encounter in the Eastern Pacific was part of standard U.S. Coast Guard enforcement and inspection actions. The U.S. gave notice  over a year ago that it would begin inspecting fishing vessels in the region, following similar decisions by New Zealand, Chile and other fishing nations in the South Pacific. These inspections are enabled by the governing documents of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, of which China is a member, and come in response to the growing threat of illegal, unregulated and unreported, or IUU, fishing in the region. The Chinese fishing vessel’s aggressive response to the Coast Guard request to board enabled three others in the same fleet to escape. Beijing and Washington both issued pointed statements, with each blaming the other for the incident.

Conflicts between nations over fishery resources increased twentyfold between 1975 and 2015. Between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War, one-fourth of all military disputes between democracies were over fish. These disputes are defined as those in which the display, threat or use of military force is present; the U.S. and Canada faced off five times over fishing rights during this period, while the U.K. and Ireland displayed force four times. And the geopolitics of conflicts over fisheries could worsen as the world’s oceans are increasingly overfished and the world’s human population rises.

Meanwhile, climate-driven fish migration will create future fish-rich and fish-poor regions as stocks begin to move out of their traditional habitats in search of ecosystems more suited to their preferences—generally, to deeper waters and away from the equator. Current models of fish migration show that they will soon be heading toward the Arctic and Eastern Tropical Pacific. Competition and conflict could easily follow.

Washington is taking the security implications of these shifts seriously. The U.S. Congress has legislated around fisheries conflicts for a number of years, including through the Maritime SAFE Act. Passed in 2020 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Maritime SAFE Act coordinates U.S. government response to IUU fishing. In March, President Joe Biden signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia to support enforcement efforts in the newly formed Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor. The effort will support conservation and security priorities through capacity-building and information-sharing in monitoring and patrolling the maritime domain, including in the fight against IUU fishing.

To head off future conflicts over fisheries, policymakers need better tools to predict where future tensions over access to fish will occur. Luckily, the science has advanced to the point that such predictions are possible.

Additionally, the new U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy highlights the need for cooperation on fisheries to achieve maritime security. And in June, the National Security Memorandum on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses outlined a whole-of-government approach to tackle these issues. For example, a unified intelligence assessment of the risks posed by IUU fishing was commissioned, counter-IUU activities will be incorporated into at-sea exercises by the Department of Defense and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will cooperate with other governments to support the International MCS Network—or monitoring, control and surveillance.

These are all appropriate responses. But in order for the U.S. and the rest of the world to head off future conflicts over fisheries, policymakers need better tools to predict where future tensions over access to fish will occur. This will allow governments to develop conservation, maritime security and governance solutions to prevent crises at sea from escalating into conflicts.  

Luckily, the science around climate change and fish-stock movement has advanced to the point that such predictions are possible. Using forecasts of ocean warming produced by models that can look 10, 20 and even 50 years into the future, fisheries scientists can predict where fish will move based on thermal preferences, habitat change and prey distribution. That, in turn, will provide early warning of conflicting claims and conservation disasters in the making. This is the central premise of the World Wildlife Fund’s Oceans Futures initiative, which seeks to provide early warning about potential conflict over fisheries and blue food insecurity to help policymakers direct resources to areas most at risk.

Early warning is essential because when fisheries dynamics change faster than cooperative policy can anticipate, risks abound. For example, the waters of the southeastern Bering Sea, currently favorable to the Walleye Pollock fishery in Alaska, will become less and less suitable due to climate change. As this valuable commercial fishery, worth nearly $400 million per year, shifts north, the nations deciding the governance of Arctic waters—namely, the members of the Arctic Council, which comprises Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden the U.S. and Russia—will have an economic interest in emerging fisheries.

These issues were considered in a 2021 accord known as the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement, which calls for a 16-year moratorium on fishing to allow time to develop the scientific knowledge needed for sustainable harvest. But politics are moving more quickly than that. The Arctic Council has suspended its operations due to tensions over the war in Ukraine, for instance. Recently, Russia also denoted the Arctic a “strategic resource base” in its updated Maritime Document of 2022, and on Nov. 30, the Russian parliament voted to restrict freedom of navigation in the North Sea. While Moscow’s motivations were not related to fisheries, it shows how the region is already entangled in broader security interests. The more contentious the politics of the Arctic region become, the more likely small disputes—including over fisheries—escalate into diplomatic or even military engagements.

While flexible, proactive governance and political coalition-building are essential to addressing maritime insecurity and fisheries conflicts, ecology and conservation play important roles as well. Conflict over natural resources occur when those resources are, or are perceived to be, scarce. Global efforts to rebuild declining fisheries, support sustainable aquaculture and promote ocean conservation are fundamental to maintaining healthy fish stocks. But in doing so, they can also help reduce one of the primary causes of fisheries conflict.

The aggressive response by a Chinese fishing vessel off Ecuador’s coast to a forewarned inspection by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol could be a harbinger of heightened tensions to come. To head them off, multilateral cooperation to fight illegal fishing and build capacity for improving maritime security will be required.

A problem well-defined through science is a problem half-solved. Now it will take political will and leadership to follow through and prevent ocean conflict from becoming the new normal.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 24th, 2022 at 1:05 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at